Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe dropped, what is known as a Woj Bomb, last week as they announced that the NBA is in high level discussions with the NBPA (the National Basketball Players Association) and broadcasting partners concerning “sweeping and dramatic changes to the league calendar that include a reseeding of the four conference finalists, a 30 team in-season tournament, and a postseason play-in”.
Reasons for change
There are a number of reasons why the NBA may consider changing the league format.
A culture of ‘load management’ has emerged in the league, which involves players opting to rest for certain matches, especially where teams play back-to-back games. Players are resting in the regular season so that they are fresh and healthy for the playoffs. The intense regular season takes its toll on players with a commitment of 82 games between October and April coupled with the demands of travel across North America.
TV viewing figures have dropped this season – broadcast audiences have declined by 18% compared to this point last season.
The Western Conference is also “stacked” when compared to the Eastern Conference. Teams in the West are perceived to have a large number of title contenders whereas the East is considered to have very few title contenders. The current format splits the 30 NBA teams into two conferences of 15 teams: East and West. At the end of the regular season, the top eight teams in each Conference qualify for the playoffs, where they compete against other teams within their Conference. The winners of the respective Conference playoffs meet in the NBA Finals. There is growing pressure on the NBA to change this format so the 16 best teams across the NBA compete in the playoffs, potentially skewing the playoffs so that more Western Conference teams qualify.
The proposed changes include:
- shortening the regular season from 82 games to 78 games;
- an in-season tournament;
- play-in games for the playoffs; and
- re-seeding the final four.
In-season tournament: the NBA is separated into a number of divisions based on location. Teams will play a round-robin schedule against teams within their division and the top three teams from each division will advance to the quarterfinals. Reports indicate this may take place in December, possibly in Las Vegas. The NBA could incentivise teams to compete in this additional tournament by giving better draft odds to the winner or by counting victories in the tournament towards a team’s regular season record. Whilst this may encourage teams to compete seriously in the tournament, it may not encourage the players. James Harden and PJ Tucker, of the Houston Rockets, criticised the tournament with Tucker stating, “you fight for an NBA championship. I don’t want to play for anything else.” Additional financial incentives for players may be required.
Play-in games for the playoffs: this proposal involves two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th seeds in each Conference who would compete for the last two playoff spots available in each Conference.
Re-seeding the final four: this would involve re-seeding the top four teams left in the playoffs at the point they reach the Conference finals. The top seeded team would play against the lowest seeded team of the final four, regardless of Conference, whilst the teams with the second and third best records in the regular season would compete against one another. So the NBA Finals could include two teams from one Conference. This would appear to be an avenue to ensure the two best teams compete in the NBA Finals.
Implementing the changes
The NBA intends to implement these changes for the 2021-22 season, which will mark the NBA’s 75th anniversary. These changes will require approval from the Board of Governors and amendments to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the league and the players. The CBA is due to run until the 2023-24 season, with an opt-out provision in its final year. Amending the CBA will pose a difficult challenge for the NBA, requiring significant negotiation with the NBPA (which represents the players’ interests). The CBA sets out numerous rules that govern the format and mechanics of the regular season and the revenue split between the league and its players, amongst other things. Its renegotiation is crucial in order to process and validate the proposed changes.
However, amending the existing CBA will present a number of challenges. The CBA is a mutual agreement, which requires compromise from both sides of the table. The NBPA will ensure that any changes to the league format confer certain rights and benefits on its players and that such changes are not detrimental to the interests of NBA athletes.
The NBA will also need to negotiate existing arrangements it has with sponsors and broadcasting partners. The changes present sponsorship and revenue-generating opportunities for the league. Although regular season games are likely to decrease in number (which will need to be reflected in existing agreements with broadcasters and partners), the introduction of an in-season tournament will likely generate interest from current and new fans. Similarly, the play-in games to secure the seventh and eighth playoff spots in each Conference should create an extra buzz at the end of the regular season.
Under Adam Silver’s stewardship, the NBA has progressed year on year financially and in terms of popularity across the world. Silver is certainly not resting on his laurels and the proposed innovations should be welcomed but there are significant logistical hurdles to overcome before they are implemented.