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There have been many words written and spoken about whether or not superteams are good for the NBA, but there has been relatively little data actually utilized to see what ratings suggest. That all changed yesterday when my guy Michael Mulvihill at Fox tweeted viewership data showing the NBA hit a five year low in total audience this season.
Total minutes of NBA viewing. National networks. RS+Playoffs+Finals:
16-17: 112.0 bill.
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) June 13, 2017
As you can see from his data analysis, fans spent significantly less time watching the regular season NBA, the NBA playoffs, and the NBA Finals this year than at any year in the past five years. Now that information might seem incongruous because it came out on the same day that ESPN was crowing about the success of the NBA Finals ratings, which averaged 20.4 million viewers per game. (In total viewership numbers, the NBA Finals actually produced their second lowest audience in the past five years, which means ESPN lost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, carrying the NBA this year. Why was total viewership down for the NBA Finals too? Because the series only went five games.)
But these two data points, while appearing contradictory on their face, when considered together actually make perfect sense. Superteams can be both good for the NBA Finals, when the largest possible audience arrives to watch the NBA product, but simultaneously bad for the rest of the season, when fans tune out because they already know who the two best teams are. In fact, in a modern communications era when we all have so many different entertainment options to consider, doesn’t it make perfect sense that most people would ignore the NBA until the NBA Finals arrive? After all, if you already know it’s going to be Warriors-Cavs in the NBA Finals, why do you care about the journey to the final?
Okay, the next question you have to ask is this, sure, this was the third straight year with the Warriors and the Cavs in the finals — and the least competitive series between those two teams — but is this superteam trend likely to continue next season?
Well, according to our friends at OddsShark the Warriors have already opened as the largest preseason favorite to win a title in the history of Major League Baseball, the NHL, the NFL or the NBA. That is, there has been never in the history of American team sports been a team that was this big of a preseason favorite to win a title in any of these four leagues. That’s downright remarkable, but it also suggests that the NBA’s issues are likely to deepen in 2017-18. The regular season and the playoffs will matter even less in this coming season than they did in the season we just finished.
Look at these OddsShark title odds for the NBA:
Golden State is -150 (The Warriors are as insane as -300 favorites at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas).
Cleveland is 3-1
From there the next closest team is 12-1.
Comparing these NBA odds with the other five most popular sports leagues: the Patriots are the favorite to win the NFL at 4-1, Alabama is the favorite to win the college football title at 3-1, the Pittsburgh Penguins are favored at 9-1 to win the NHL, the Houston Astros are favorites at 4-1 in the middle of the MLB season, and Michigan State is the favorite to win the college basketball title at 7-1.
So Golden State is on a completely different level than these other five leagues.
What’s even crazier about this? The NFL, college football, and the NCAA all play one game title formats. That is, one bad game and you’re eliminated from title contention. It’s not just that the Warriors are prohibitive favorites, it’s that they have to lose four times in a seven game series.
You want to make the first round of the NBA playoffs must see television? What if the first round was a one-game elimination instead of a seven game series? Then you’d have all the excitement of the NCAA tourney opening round in the NBA. It would also leave fans of teams that aren’t as good engaged in the sport. Could the Portland Trail Blazers or Indiana Pacers beat the Warriors or the Cavs in a seven game series? No way. But could they pull off a one game upset? You bet.
As is, unlike every other major sport in America, we already know exactly what will happen in the NBA, so why watch until the very end? After all, how many people would watch “Game of Thrones” from start to finish if they knew exactly how the series ended?
The NBA is broken and fans are abandoning its product save for the NBA Finals themselves. So how do you fix things? I’ve got three suggestions:
1. Change the NBA salary cap structure.
One reason top players all end up on the same teams is because the NBA salary cap is broken.
Four of the top 25 players are on the Golden State Warriors and three of the top 25 players are on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Combined these two teams boast nearly one-third of the top players in the league. No other team has more than two top 25 players.
As a result, the two top teams meet to play for the title and the other 28 teams have virtually no chance to win a title. So even though 16 NBA teams make the playoffs, unlike in the NFL, college football, the NCAA Tournament, the NHL or Major League Baseball where every team that makes the postseason can theoretically win the title, the NBA is so top heavy that only two teams can really contend for the title.
I’ve got a solution for this problem.
Why not allow all thirty teams to sign one player outside of the existing salary cap structure? Right now LeBron James is probably worth $100 million to at least one NBA team. Yet he’s only making $30 million this year. As a capitalist, I find that very unfair. Why shouldn’t the top players receive the top pay for their talents? Effectively LeBron is paying a massive tax on his talent and allowing money that would otherwise go to him to be redistributed to players with lesser talents. So why not allow every owner to bid whatever they want for LeBron James and the top 29 additional players in the league? Every team would have the chance to bid on every player, but every team would also be guaranteed of getting a top 30 player.
You want to avoid Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors? Allow a team to offer him $90 million a year. Durant went to the Warriors because he was willing to take a few million dollars a year less to compete for an immediate title. But is there anyway Durant would have taken fifty million a year less to go to Golden State? I doubt it.
In theory this is a market based solution that would permit the top 30 players to all end up on 30 different teams. Then the remainder of the players in the league, the non-elite, would exist under the existing salary cap, which would be reduced to reflect the hundreds of million a year in compensation that the top players received. That way the best player in the NBA could only have the 31st best player in the NBA alongside him. We wouldn’t end up with a situation where four of the top 25 players are all on the same team like has happened with Golden State.
Redistributing the top talent across all 30 teams would lead to much greater parity, which would mean the NBA product would be much more entertaining all season long.
If you added all this parity and then made the opening round of the NBA playoffs single elimination?
Good Lord, the NBA’s product would immediately become more exciting.
(Some of you are immediately going to ask, “What about if your team drafts a guy and he leaves for more money?” You could be compensated for the loss via a tax on signing a top player. That way smaller market teams that lose top players to bigger market teams would receive a cash windfall to allow them to compete for another top player to replace the one they lost. Drafting top players would still be incentivized too, however, since you’d be guaranteed your young player for several years until he hit potential free agency.)
The key here would be this would guarantee that top players are evenly distributed across the entire league.
2. Start the season on Christmas Day and finish it in mid-August.
It makes no sense for the NBA to start its season in October. Right now we have nearly three full months without the two most popular sports in the country, football and basketball.
So why not start the NBA on Christmas Day and have the season end in mid-August?
College basketball could then follow and start its season early in January and finish it in May with May Madness instead of March Madness. This would have the added benefit of making college basketball a single semester sport instead of awkwardly stretching it over both the fall and spring semesters.
This way instead of competing with football for as much as five months, basketball would have a longer stage to itself after the NFL season ended in early February.
Sure, basketball and baseball would compete more, but so what? Sports fans would win.
3. Don’t allow players to miss games without going on a disabled list that requires two full weeks of missed games.
NBA teams are resting players at high rates now. That’s led to many suggestions that the season be shortened, but there’s no way the leagues and owners are going to give up the revenue from 82 basketball games.
So the NBA should institute a two week disabled list.
If you sit out a game, you are forced to be placed on the disabled list and miss two weeks of games.
Would guys rest if the result was they missed two weeks of games?
I doubt it.
But if they did, at least fans could plan for that eventuality.
I think if all three of these rules were implemented we could make the NBA great again.
As is, the NBA set a five year viewership low this year and is likely to continue to decline again next season. Without talent distributed somewhat evenly across the league, fans tune out until the NBA Finals. Given how many entertainment options fans have today, the NBA is at real risk of becoming a one month season, just like college basketball already has.