There’s no running from the NFL, and the NBA should stop trying before it gets started.
Rumblings about the league permanently changing its schedule have gotten louder in league circles as the coronavirus pandemic has forced all sports leagues to recalibrate short- and long-term plans.
In an effort to distance itself from the behemoth that is the NFL, the thought of starting the NBA season on Christmas Day feels like a viable option. The league is trending in that direction for next season regardless of what happens with the remainder of this season — and possibly for the foreseeable future.
On its face, not trying to compete with the NFL and its stranglehold on the American public seems logical, and the NBA’s slate of Christmas Day games seems like the unofficial start to the season anyway.
The superior matchups between marquee teams happen after January, and by the time the NFL playoffs conclude with the Super Bowl, the spotlight can then shift to the NBA.
But in a plea for common sense, the league should take a reasonable step back and realize the tweaks it needs are more minor than seismic.
This is coming from a traditionalist’s point of view, one that sees the NBA as a genuine marathon and not something that needs its filters shifted to “All-Rookie” to prevent injuries of any kind.
That’s as much a part of the game as the trimester nature of the season, a nine-month process that yields a champion in the late spring as opposed to late summer. Permanently shifting the league’s calendar for the sake of giving it a jumpstart during a time when things don’t matter as much seems shortsighted.
Avoiding the NFL’s shadow is unavoidable — it’s already infringing on the NBA’s Christmas Day slate — and it has the perfect setup, with one game a week for a team, feeding into the short attention spans of its fans and the narrative-driven sports media.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is smart. Many of his decisions, including making the NBA the first sports league to shut down because of the pandemic, was prudent and humane. He routinely challenges the status quo and has ambitions of growing the NBA internationally, which makes him admirable.
He’s earned the trust of the players and general public, which shouldn’t be taken for granted. But this feels like overthinking for so many practical reasons.
Starting the season two months later means the Finals would take place in August, when most of the viewing public plans for vacations and children are out of school with not much going on.
The NBA apparently views that as an opportunity. Believing your league is important enough to change the natural habits of the general public trends a bit on the arrogant side, and until there’s a better metric to determine viewership besides Nielsen boxes, it doesn’t present much upside.
You want to maximize the eyeballs on your product for when it matters most: the playoffs — April, May and June. Our collective muscles are tuned to that, and although it’s not impossible, it feels like a natural transition to go from March Madness to the NBA playoffs.
Even the NFL has fan fatigue, with Monday and Thursday football not being able to capture the glory of a Sunday afternoon and evening.
And it’s sure to upset the regional sports networks, who are used to having NBA programming in the middle of the fall before leading into the winter, as opposed to the unenviable task of balancing the tail end of the NBA schedule with Major League Baseball.
Such change would actually have to be embraced by the players, and there seems to be no indication they’ll go for that. They want their summers and guess who else does? Their wives and families and kids — especially as we see summer basketball become more prevalent for the children of NBA players.
The prominent shoe companies use summers for overseas trips to increase the profile of their players, their brands and the league at large — because those kids are out of school, too. There’s also the Olympics to think about. In trying to serve one master, the NBA risks losing the organic momentum it’s been building for years, especially internationally, which has been a priority for decades.
Why can’t the NBA embrace the natural build-up of its calendar? Player movement and free agency has made it a 12-month league, and the only true shutdown happens in August and early September, following summer league.
The league is undergoing a market correction of sorts, as one can attribute dwindling ratings to start the season with knowing the league will be there for the coming weeks and months. And the lack of roster continuity from year to year is creating a disconnect for fans.
The NBA can’t make every game equal. With the perception that teams are playing the long game and resting players, it can’t fool the fans into caring about every game.
It’s unclear whether the league will actually go through with the potential changes beyond trying to salvage this COVID-19-marred season. Silver has specialized in being great at one aspect of his job: doing what makes sense.
One would like to believe that will prevail this time around.
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