For better or worse, the NBA’s new mid-season tournament is the talk of the town this week.
The specific details were released this past weekend for what’s to be known as the NBA Cup.
While the announcement seemed to have come out of left field for some, commissioner Adam Silver detailed how this idea “has been rumbling around the league office for about 15 years.”
If it sounds like something straight out of professional soccer (or, to the rest of the world, football), that’s the idea.
“It’s not a new concept in sports,” Silver explained. “For those that follow particularly international soccer, it’s a long tradition of having in-season tournaments … so we thought, what a perfect opportunity for a global league like the NBA and it’s a perfect fit for our game.”
Unless or until top teams from international leagues are able to partake, it’s easy for the eyes to roll over this one.
It’s so easy for this new tournament to prompt a monosyllabic question: Why?
“It gives you another chance to win something, for real. I think that’s a big part,” said Josh Richardson, who, ironically enough, recently signed (once again) with Miami, the runners up in the NBA Finals.
Among this league of competitors who’ve worked and continue to work arduously and obsessively to win an NBA championship, it’s hard to believe that a large portion of guys would view this in the same light as the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
When the “success” of the play-in tournament began to be felt, this idea for a midseason tournament began to gain some steam again. And around that time, Jamal Murray had a message for the league:
There’s nothing in it for the players, which is probably why the incentives are cash-based. Players will win money for making the quarterfinals, the amount of which will depend on their finish. For instance, cup-winners will win $500,000 each while a mere quarterfinals appearance earns $50,000 each.
After all, this—like so many other things—comes down to revenue for the NBA.
As much as commissioner Silver wants to claim basketball can change the world, as he did in his 75th Anniversary essay, everyone knows the driving force is money.
And the league is desperate to grow revenue. That’s been an off-and-on mission for them ever since the end of the Michael Jordan era.
Viewership is key, and it’s what’s often been elusive.
[Graphs Courtesy of SportsMediaWatch.com]
The year after Michael Jordan’s second retirement—a lockout year—produced a peak in average viewership at 3.10 million, which surpassed the 2.99 million of the Bulls’ 72-win season.
And then between 1999 and 2007, viewership began a steady descent. During the 2000-01 season, viewership fell below 2 million for the first time in recent memory, and after climbing back above that threshold in 2001-02—the year Michael Jordan returned to play in Washington—it began it’s regression yet again.
A large reason for this—aside from the subsidence of Jordan as a sort of Greek mythological hero—was that the NBA made a deal with Disney (ESPN and ABC) and AOL/Time Warner (TNT) that steered the league away from the universally available network of NBC, which slashed the reach of the televised games.
The offer from Disney and AOL/Time Warner was worth $3.4 billion, $2.1 billion higher than NBC’s, so the league had no problem cutting the amount of games broadcast on network television in half. This also in turn raised demand among sports fans to spend the extra money to gain access to certain cable channels.
But viewership declined steadily.
If only the league could recreate the viewership success of the 1980’s, when the availability of NBA games on network TV was perhaps its most universal. What better way to achieve that than bear witness to the resurgence of the Boston Celtics and the return of the Celtics-Lakers Finals.
Luckily for the NBA, that’s what happened.
After the 2006-07 season reached a pretty low point at 1.52 million viewers, the assembling of the Boston Big Three sent ratings on an upward trajectory. The year the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals, viewership averages were at 1.71 million before jumping to 1.95 million the following year.
But even as Boston and LA met a second time in the 2010 Finals, that season’s viewership began to fall once again, and considering that, it’s no wonder that this midseason tournament had “been rumbling around the league office for about 15 years.”
Still, the NBA needed a quick shot in the arm. And they got it.
In the summer of 2010, LeBron James made the biggest publicity stunt with “The Decision” where, like it or not, viewership rose to near 1990’s-level as a direct result. In the two seasons following that, which included a lockout year, the NBA averaged 2.51 million viewers each time.
Following Miami’s second straight championship, viewership sunk beneath the 2 million threshold again, and it fell to 1.80 million the season LeBron returned to Cleveland.
The Warriors’ 73-win season—another recreation of past success—kicked viewership back up a little and the Kevin Durant era in Golden State helped keep viewership between 1.75 and 1.89 million.
But in 2019-20, it shrunk to 1.55 million on average, and then 1.36 million in 2020-21 when the season was in full pandemic mode.
Even as the audience fell precipitously, there was absolutely no reason to feel bad for a massive entity like the NBA when the lockdown momentarily halted basketball and presented the opportunity to utilize the play-in strategy, which transformed into its current iteration for the 2020-21 season.
Again, it was the “success” of the play-in, as well as those falling ratings, that really helped this midseason tournament gain considerable steam.
The NBA recovered a decent amount when things returned to the way they were—i.e. full capacity in the stadiums, media members being allowed in person, etc.—climbing up to an average of 1.61 million viewers, but it saw a slight step back to 1.59 million this past season.
What better time to unveil something shiny and new.
This midseason tournament is just another tool to try and reverse the fortunes of falling viewership, which is why it was probably inevitable.
…Note: For the Kings, they’ll be in the Western Conference’s Group C along with the Warriors, Timberwolves, Thunder, and Spurs…