NBA play-in video games are successful – so the league ought to preserve the format

LeBron James # 23 of the Los Angeles Lakers heads to the basket against the Golden State Warriors during the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament on May 19, 2021 at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California.

Adam Pantozzi | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

LeBron James made his feelings known. The National Basketball Association team owner, Mark Cuban, did the same. Some like it and some don’t.

But the NBA box office went from being a pandemic necessity to a possible permanent function.

In the play-in games, 7 to 10 points are awarded in each conference, with the winners securing the last four play-off places. The NBA installed the games last summer because the season was suspended due to Covid-19.

“It was a certain excitement for our TV partners and our fans to watch important and meaningful games,” Robert Sarver, owner of Phoenix Suns, told CNBC when asked about the games. “And from an additional entertainment point of view, it’s an additional benefit for our media partners.”

The latest on the frontline is that the NBA has reached over 5 million viewers for the premium play-in: James’ Los Angeles Lakers versus Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors. It’s not pro football attendance stats, but nothing in US sport is ever going to match the NFL. And few media experts will disapprove of 5 million viewers on a Wednesday evening.

Now NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will control the policy of the continuation of the playoff play-in games. He has to deal with the basketball traditionalists, the egos in the owner group, and the players who share their feedback. But Silver’s job of convincing his NBA constituencies shouldn’t be difficult, and here’s why.

The audience is strong and that is what matters

There was only one game last year – the Memphis Grizzlies versus the Portland Trail Blazers – due to disparity guidelines in place. The Blazers-Grizzlies averaged over 1 million viewers, peaking at 2.6 million on a Saturday afternoon in August. For two small market teams, this is a success for ESPN.

Turner Sports said the seventh Boston Celtics win over the Washington Wizards averaged 2.5 million viewers. And the competition with the lower seeds (Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers) averaged 1.4 million viewers.

And James helped ESPN perform with an average of 5.6 million viewers. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors 103-100 thanks to James’ game-winning shot. ESPN averaged 2.2 million viewers for its first contest starring Memphis Grizzlies’ rising star Ja Morant.

“The early returns are good,” said Evan Wasch, NBA manager. One of the people James suggested was to be fired for his role in installing the play-in. Wasch is executive vice president of basketball strategy and analysis. Part of his job is to format the games that were on the NBA’s radar before he got into the league.

With the potential of six new games, this should only help the NBA if it returns to the negotiating table with its national media partners. Early speculation suggests the NBA would be targeting just under $ 70 billion in new rights. The current agreement runs until 2024.

But if fans watch for what they are so far, things could get interesting for Disney and the new Discovery-WarnerMedia.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban shakes hands with Luka Doncic (77) after beating the San Antonio Spurs 117-110 in an NBA basketball game in Dallas on Monday, November 18, 2019.

Richard W. Rodriguez | AP

The team business will benefit from this

Like James, the Cuban was adamant about his aversion to the Games. The thing is, he commented, when his Dallas Mavericks were about to compete in the play-in. However, the Mavs escaped and Cubans discussed NFTs again. But even he cannot deny that the introductory games are suitable for his paperback.

The play-in games are basically play-off competitions. There are at least two elimination games at home for the seventh seed. For example, if the Mavs had finished seventh, they would be playing as many guaranteed games at the American Airlines Center as they would in a traditional playoff format. And if they win the play-in and make good progress in the play-offs, that means more income on matchday, and the value of the jersey patch also increases. The play-in stats do not count, but the money that comes in does.

“From the point of view of team business, the seventh seed ends up in a positive net place,” said Wasch. “This seed has an added benefit when it comes to virtually participating in this play-in for more [playoff] Home games. “

How can Cubans argue against this? When asked whether his stance had changed, the Cuban was silent in an email. But when asked about his perspective, Sarver said, “I would have no problem supporting them.”

Ja Morant # 12 of the Memphis Grizzlies bounces off the San Antonio Spurs during the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament on May 19, 2021 at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

The competition will be good

Take away the boring games with the Pacers and Wizards and the play-in games were fun. But it’s pre-game competition that has increased NBA fan engagement.

For the last two weeks of the regular season, play-in races were one of the most talked about topics in sport. Would the Lakers fall? Could curry come in? Also, there was James’ dislike of the format.

“It certainly didn’t detract from the interest in the play-in when some of our celebrity players and owners talked about it, whether positive or negative,” said Wasch.

He added that the race for the sixth seed was stepping up as the teams wanted to avoid breaking in. Here the NBA has launched a race in the middle of the overall standings. While discussing the issue with CNBC, a prominent manager on the Western Conference team noted that 24 teams were battling it out for positioning in the final weeks of the season. When asked if he would support it permanently, the executive said yes. And Sarver noted that it discourages teams from refueling for draft picks.

“We have learned that our teams and players react to the competitive dynamics that are presented in front of them,” said Wasch. “If you give teams the opportunity to earn bigger rewards for a higher place in the overall standings, and those rewards are oversized compared to traditional rewards, you will see an answer.”

“We saw it in the bubble last year when the Western Conference teams were battling to get into the play-in,” added Wasch. “And we’re seeing it four times this year because it’s just not eight and nine [seeds]. … If this continues, this format will be a success. So far, all findings have been positive. “

What happens now

The audience for the Lakers Warriors competition was solid, but that number could be difficult to recapture. There were two of the best athletes in the world (Curry and James). The chances that these two will meet again in this position are slim.

After Silver puts the team owners in line, the next thing to do is convince the National Basketball Players Association. At that point, the NBA will reveal how much these box office games mean to the league.

“I think they’ll play again,” said former NBPA executive Charles Grantham. “The thing is, what will it cost them to get the players to agree? There is no question that it will be the subject of negotiation for the next deal.”

Grantham, who is now the director of the Sports Management Program at Seton Hall, expects the NBPA to require that play-in game revenue be added to the gross revenue the NBA receives in the form of revenue from basketball with the players share according to their existing agreement.

Eliminating preseason games could also be an option as players may have questions about their body wear and tear. But nowadays teams have calm strategies so the obstacles shouldn’t prevent an agreement.

There are still a few things to be found out, fairness is one of them, but the NBA has found its new advantage. The play-ins are fun and prove that they work.

“If we found that the fans felt that it had devalued the regular season, we should see if we can squeak it in any way to adjust to it,” said Wasch. “But I’m optimistic that it was actually a welcome addition.”

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