NBA is Considering Major Changes to Regular Season
This has been a terrific NBA Playoffs. The new blood that has risen to the top, the individual and team performances, the series that have come down to the wire — all have provided some of the best basketball we’ve seen in years. It also underscores how inferior the regular season is to the amazing tournament that makes up the postseason.
As the NBA eyes a new media rights deal that could raise its annual haul from $2.6 billion annually to nearly $8 billion per year, it’s looking for ways to spice up the regular season, which continues to be plagued by player rest and subpar matchups. And even worse for the NBA, regular-season viewership is down 29% from three years ago.
One big way to spice it up is with a midseason tournament, similar to what the WNBA announced earlier this season.
WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup
In helping its negotiations with Amazon on a streaming deal, and bringing in a huge tournament sponsor like Google, the WNBA is setting aside 10 regular-season games for each team to compete in group play for the Commissioner’s Cup — a midseason tournament designed to engage fans during the regular season, and put more money in everyone’s pocket.
Following the group play the teams with the best records advance to the midseason tournament, and then play a brief set of games to decide the champion.
Each winning player gets $30,000, and the runner-ups get $10,000 per player. If you are named MVP of the tournament you get an extra $5,000.
The NBA’s Possible Version
The value of the play-in games for postseason berths has been obvious. What was started in 2020 because of the shortened season, was used in 2021 to keep more teams and fanbases engaged at the end of the regular season, and will now be used going forward as a solid source of revenue.
The same idea is fueling a midseason tournament. More engagement from fans, and lots more revenue for the teams and players, is the goal. But with players in the NBA making on average 100x more than their WNBA counterparts, the offered prize money for the winning teams will need to be much more. Like upwards of $1 million per player to incentivize them to participate.
Assuming the WNBA’s midseason tournament is a success, the NBA would likely follow its structure. A handful of regular-season games would be used for group play, making those games more valuable. And then the advancing teams would play a few extra games to decide the tournament winner.
Sticking Points with Player’s Union
There was actually a proposal on the table in 2019 for a similar plan from the NBA. The regular season would be 78 games (down from 82) and there would be an in-season tournament with a $1 million per player prize for the winner. It was also in that proposal that the league first started talking about a play-in tournament to decide the 7th and 8th playoff seeds — something adopted a year later.
Commission Adam Silver began talking about a midseason tournament as early as 2016, comparing the plan to what European soccer does during its season. He even commissioned a study regarding the plans for a shorter regular season and found that 60 percent of fans supported the idea.
We know the players want a shorter regular season, and the NBPA will probably have to see significant shortages in the season if they are going to approve a midseason tournament. Any changes to the season, such as this, would need union approval.
When arenas are full, teams make between $2.5 million and $4 million per home date. And with the league needing at least two-thirds of its teams to approve such a proposal, there must be ways to cover the shortfall of losing home games.
Which is, of course, where the new media rights deal comes in. If the league can produce a midseason tournament that can approach the excitement of the playoffs, the networks will pay. If the prize pool is high enough, the players will join. And if, along with the money, there are other incentives to the team — extra draft picks or playoff byes have been discussed — then the teams will approve of the new formatted regular season too.