Earlier this week, a gentleman caught my eye while walking down the street. On his face was a surgical mask. On his hands were a pair of latex gloves. Neither of these things would have qualified as extraordinary except that, in between his lips, above the pulled-down mask, was the circular orange ember of a lit cigarette, which he raised and lowered from mouth to hip every few strides.
Now, there are those who would have seen in this man a walking contradiction. Sir, they may have said, come sit with me and let’s consider each of the decisions that led you to your present state and the impact that each of them will have on your future life expectancy. Others may have just snickered and continued on down the road.
Me? I saw this man for what he was. An angel of epiphany. A prophet for our times. A beacon of light proclaiming the one fundamental truth that we can derive from our ongoing walk through the wilderness.
We need sports back, and we need them as soon as it is possible. Otherwise, if the virus does not get us, the insanity will.
Fortunately, this is one of those situations where the needs of consumers and profit-seekers are likely to coincide. While the NBA has remained largely mum on its contingency plans, there still appears to be a decent chance that the season will resume in one form or another. Earlier this week, the mayor of Atlantic City confirmed that the town’s Boardwalk Hall was one of several sites that, according to the New York Post, the NBA was considering to serve as host for the end of its regular season and playoffs.
Presumably, the games would be staged without spectators, given the strong possibility that one of the stipulations of society’s initial return to normalcy will include the avoidance of mass gatherings. That would constitute a massive blow to the owners’ bottom lines. The Golden State Warriors reportedly generated $12 million in revenue per home playoff game during the 2018 postseason. But that pales in comparison to the sizable chunk of the $2.66 billion per year that the league receives from its national television contract.
Simply from a quantity standpoint, the loss of the postseason would be financially devastating. The playoffs make up roughly a quarter of the games contracted to ABC/ESPN and TNT, and that’s before you take into consideration the increased television viewership. Simple math tells us all we need to know: $2.66 billion divided by 30 teams divided by four is $22.2 million per team. Combined with the loss of ticket revenue, even the most conservative projection is one that a number of teams would struggle to sustain.
In short, the principle of self-interest suggests that some sort of end-of-season tournament will be played. There are massive incentives for the owners to stage the games, and for the players to play them, and for all of us to watch them.
The only question is: What form they will take? Several reports have suggested that the league is hoping to stage some sort of abbreviated end of the regular season, followed by a full playoff slate. But there’s an argument to be made that, in the long-run, the league would be better off scrapping the idea of crowning a conventional champion and proceed to what time and circumstances allow.
One potential format is a variation on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where all 30 NBA teams would be included in the field of a double-elimination tournament that concludes with a seven-game Finals. Such a format would make it possible to play between 59 and 65 games in under a month. To put that in perspective, last year’s NBA postseason featured 82 games.
There are all sorts of variations on that theme that the NBA could use to offer more value to its rights-holders than even a standard 16-team tournament. It could offer byes to the top 14 teams in the league and stage a double-elimination play-in tournament with the bottom 16, where the champions of the winners’ and losers’ brackets advance to complete the field. Meanwhile, the top 14 teams could engage in round-robin play, which would enable the networks to showcase a variety of match-ups that a standard postseason does not allow for. Perhaps that bottom 16 tourney is the only double-elimination stage, with each subsequent round featuring a series of three or five or seven games.
The objective should be three-fold:
1. Maximize the television-viewing audience of every game by maximizing its stakes. If nobody is going to be buying tickets for a “regular season” Pistons-Knicks make-up anyway, there’s no reason it should be played.
2. Maximize the number of elite-versus-elite matchups. Over the course of a normal NBA postseason, a team only encounters three such opponents: one in the conference semis, one in the conference finals, and one in the NBA Finals. One way to accomplish this would be a round-robin round where the league is divided into five buckets of six teams arranged from best to worst. Each team plays one game against the other teams in its bucket over the course of 10 days. The first two buckets automatically make the tournament and are playing for seeding. The bottom three buckets are playing to advance to the next round.
All of these scenarios would raise some issues of fairness and diminish the results of the regular season, but that brings us to our third objective.
3. The NBA should not feel compelled to re-create what can’t be re-created. Barring a decision to postpone the start of the 2020-21 season, it is going to be difficult to complete the three months or so that remain on the schedule in a safe, reasonable way. The objective should not be to crown a champion that counts itself among those from previous seasons. Rather, it should be to provide the maximum amount of television entertainment for the viewer, and thus, the maximum amount of value for the rights-holder, while enabling history to regard 2020 as the anomaly that it was.
Perhaps this will prove to be wishful thinking. I’m well aware that society has bigger concerns than a lack of entertainment. If 2020 ends up being the year with no sports, it will rank toward the bottom of the calendar’s misfortunes.