As sports entertain ideas on how to return to play without fans, it makes sense that NASCAR — where the athletes are in cars — would be first to give it a try. But among team sports, eyes appear to be squarely on the return date for the NBA.
As the second-most popular U.S. professional league behind only the NFL and one that was a month away from the postseason when play was suspended in March, the NBA has plenty of demand for its product. And plenty of financial incentive to return.
Broadcasting the remainder of regular season games could have earned the league and its partners an estimated $136 million in TV ad revenue, according to iSpot.tv. Last year’s playoffs (including the NBA Finals) earned over $782 million from TV ads. While that money obviously goes into both players’ and owners’ pockets, it also impacts the league’s salary cap going forward. Player salaries are determined as a percentage of basketball-related income. So without those games, players can’t get paid as much, which creates a nightmare scenario for what’s been a growing enterprise.
While it seems unlikely the NBA or any league can recoup every dime from lost broadcasts, it appears there’s an ambitious plan to potentially give it a shot.
Last week, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and Brian Windhorst spelled out the NBA’s idea that could lead to what amounts to March Madness in the summer: Wall-to-wall days of basketball in Las Vegas to close out the regular season schedule (there were 259 games left), and more of the same for the playoffs.
According to the report, playing eight games per day on two courts would complete the regular season schedule in just 33 days with minimal back-to-back games for teams. Four rounds of postseason games (with seven-game series in each round) could take up to 55 days.
Yes, that’s still a three-month stretch for the players, team official and staff and their families (it seems like a non-starter to leave families out of this bubble setup). But it also means three solid months of non-stop basketball the likes of which we’ve never really seen.
With ABC, ESPN and Turner certainly looking for valuable inventory to fill out programming, they’d clearly jump at the chance. Every game would be a national broadcast. You could turn on a TV at any point in a day for over a month and find new, live hoops on.
It’s the NCAA Tournament on steroids, really. While the first weekend of the event is a slew of games from morning ’til night, the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 have things narrowed down by week two. iSpot data estimates that the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament had over $941 million in TV ads from just 67 games. This NBA season setup would hit that number in nine days, with around 80 left to go after that.
As is the case with all of these initiatives, however, a lot depends on testing and the league’s ability to create a real bubble without new cases popping up within those confines. Putting all relevant personnel in one place — Vegas — helps. But just one player straying away to the nightlife on the Strip could harpoon the entire thing. The NBA also isn’t even back at practice facilities yet (though some teams could be within the week), so we’re still weeks out from even entertaining the idea of games.
So we’re still a long way from this happening, but even a shortened version of the setup above should have fans — and broadcast partners — pretty excited. With luck, it’ll also help provide a roadmap for how other live sports could return in the next couple months as well.