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For TV Audiences, Advertisers & Networks, ‘Group Play’ NBA Return Could be Best Bet

Realistically, we’re still many weeks away from seeing live team sports return in the U.S., as these leagues still haven’t figured out exactly how they’ll return to play.

MLB seems poised to struggle most given the numerous financial and logistical hurdles to returning. MLS, while only a couple weeks into the 2020 season was play was suspended, has fewer teams, lower salaries and some flexibility around scheduling — plus less regionally-focused broadcast rights.

For the NHL and NBA, the question of how to return automatically easier because it’s mostly about how to run the postseason, and that’s it. The NHL has already unveiled a creative approach to the Stanley Cup Playoffs involving an expanded, 24-team field and hub cities. Such an arrangement could potentially be a boon for playoff viewership — something that would greatly help a league that’s long been heavily reliant on those revenues without a lucrative national TV deal like the NBA has.

Though the NBA has yet to unveil its own plan for returning to the court, ideas have been floated by commissioner Adam Silver ranging from the standard (restarting in the playoffs and just seeding teams according to the most recent standings) to the more farflung (a group play format that would more resemble the World Cup).

While the NBA Playoffs are normally a big draw for TV — according to iSpot spend estimates, the 2019 playoffs and Finals earned nearly $800 million across all networks (in the U.S.) — and there’s an even greater demand on watching the games this year given the extended absence, momentum could be lost quickly with a less interesting start to the playoffs. Typically, early round matchups have featured lopsided wins and only a handful of series that go the full seven games. Plus, given the disparity between a team like the East’s top seed the Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) and the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic (30-35), you’re not necessarily making the most of what should be nationwide focus on basketball this summer.

This is where the group play idea really shines, as the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor thoroughly explained this week. For those unfamiliar with group play, here’s how it works in the World Cup:

  • Teams are ranked and sorted into groups by strength, then randomly assigned to groups, with one team from each “pot”
  • Round robin schedule lets each team play one another once
  • Top two records from each group advance to the knockout round

On the negative side, there’s a chance that the best teams fail to advance from their respective groups. But they’re also given a fair chance to do so in this format. Should surprising results occur instead, you wind up with a Cinderella-type run, similar to that of the NCAA Tournament. Plus, in group play, every game matters because one loss can potentially endanger your ability to advance.

O’Connor explains how the same would be true if the NBA adopted such an approach to this postseason, inviting 20 teams to be sorted into four separate groups of five. Each team would play a double round-robin and the top two from each group would advance to what would effectively be the conference semifinal round in a normal NBA season.

Not only does this setup create infinitely more watchable games, more games overall (nearly doubles the usual first round total) and more intrigue to the first round proceedings than normal, but it also enhances the entire television ecosystem around the games. You’re getting wall-to-wall games every day with real stakes, a daily conversation about group play, a selection show and a dream for advertisers: a consistently captive audience for weeks on end.

Using iSpot data once again, NBA playoff games earned an average national TV ad revenue of $7.67 million per game before the Finals (over 77 games) last year. If we assume the same this summer — despite the fact that it would likely be more — a standard playoff could net anywhere from $460 million to $882 million. For group play, we’re looking at a minimum of $828 million and a maximum of about $989 million.

Would the Los Angeles Lakers getting knocked out early mean the league loses a couple viewers once you get to the knockout round? Sure, maybe. But that could also happen in a typically formatted postseason. Either way, they’re far more likely to advance than not. It’s just that this format shifts the draw from a single team or a handful of squads/players in big markets, and moves it toward the whole league and the intensity this playoff format could take on.

The NBA has long been star-centric and that will remain the case. But this does feel like an opportunity — even for just one season — to emphasize a larger portion of the already popular league, and create a unique format that hooks hardcore and casual fans alike. Bucks vs. Magic or the Lakers vs. the Memphis Grizzlies for seven games seems unlikely to make that happen, or at least wouldn’t to the same extent.

Without the same extreme revenue concerns of MLB, the NBA can play it safe and still find itself an impressive payday here just by running back the same format everyone’s already used to. However, there’s still a likely disparity between expected and actual basketball-related income this year as a result of COVID-19. If you have a chance to make more money — for you and struggling broadcast partners — and get closer to reducing that gap in income, doesn’t it make more sense to do it?