Friday, June 13, 2014

The 82 Game Alternative - #TripleCrownSeason

Since the NBA was nearly on the brink of ruin in 2010 it has regained its financial footing with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the league has been revitalized with several new ownership groups so it is time to consider a bold structural reorganization for the following reasons:
  • 82-game season is too long with too few compelling games
  • reliance on division rivalries impedes global growth
  • lacks any grand opening season tradition
  • tanking is the unofficial strategy to rebuilding teams
  • conference-dependent playoff format is competitively unjust
  • NBA has the most popular (marketable) athletes yet NFL & MLB generate more revenue & fan interest (hope)
Everyone and their mother have written about the 82-game regular season being too long and/or not compelling. ESPN's NBA writers like Bill SimmonsHenry Abbott, J.A. Adande, and Kevin Arnovitz, CBS writer Ken Berger, and even Business Insider Tony Manfred as well as basketball devoted bloggers like Zachary Bennett have chimed in with solutions. The reasons are universal to basketball fans:
  • it's too predictable - most of the same teams succeed every year
  • no urgency required 
    • no urgency to opening the season well - see 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets
    • no urgency to finishing the season well - see 2013-14 Indiana Pacers
  • diminishes value of season tickets - why buy 41 games when only a dozen will be worth watching
  • diminishes value of TV schedule - not must-see-TV when half the teams play each other four times a season
  • too many games too fast - back-to-back games, 4 games in 5 nights - causes excessive injuries and/or compels coaches to sit players
  • too many bad games - losing teams vs losing teams, teams struggling with injured and/or aging players
  • "scheduled losses" - teams allow for and accept losses based solely on travel & game scheduling
There are more reasons but the focus here is on a solution.

82 Games Too Many

First let us start with the fact that NBA owners are not going to reduce the 82-game schedule. Games equal money and owners are not in the league for charitable reasons. Any solution has to make more money using an 82-game architecture.

The proposal (outlined in the heading) is to split those 82 games into three separate stand-alone contests: a 16-game group-play tournament, an 8-game division cup series and a 58-game round-robin regular season. It could work as an 8-game group-play tournament and 16-game division cup series as well.

Even if owners, players, media and fans do not agree with these contests specifically, hopefully they can accept the principle where multiple stand-alone contests within a singular season can make for a more entertaining and profitable product.

The 58-game regular season is straight forward (details to follow). The 30 teams play each other twice, home and away, and the overall top 16 teams qualify for the standard four rounds, best-of-7 playoffs. There are no divisions or conferences to consider with this format.

Eliminate the preseason and the 16-game preliminary group-play could begin in October and the final tournament (again, details to follow) could be played over Thanksgiving and the following weekend or could be played to fill the void left by NCAA Football in December. The regular season could begin around Christmas concluding as it currently does, similar to the 2011-12 strike-shortened season. Within the regular season an 8-game division cup series could be scheduled. It would look like a 66-game schedule but 58 will count towards playoff qualifications and 8 will help determine division champs.

This may sound confusing but European soccer teams play multiple contests every season. 
  • Manchester United FC played 54 games last season
    • 38 games for the Premier League
    • 10 games for the European Champions League Cup (UEFA)
    • remaining games for the FA Cup, League Cup and misc. games
  • Barcelona FC played 61 games last season
    • 38 games for La Liga
    • 10 games for the European Champions League Cup (UEFA)
    •  remaining games for the Copa del Rey and Super Cup
  • last place Cardiff City FC of the Premier League played 43 games 
    • 38 games for the league & 5 Games for FA & Capital One Cup
Splitting the 82-game schedule into multiple stand-alone contests provides honest and compelling match-ups well before the playoffs in addition to the media, sponsorship and other revenue growth and sharing opportunities. This new architecture creates relevant appointment-viewing events sponsors and fans want to watch and be associated with.


The NBA suffers from a major contradiction -- it has the most popular players in the world but fails to earn the assumed corresponding revenue. 

Below are two graphs comparing the top ten sports leagues in overall revenue and then in per team revenue. 

The third graph represents the money earned in endorsements for the top ten players in each sport.

It is not difficult to see the NBA underachieves.

Corporations earn tremendous endorsement value by effectively going around the NBA directly to the players. For the league to earn that revenue it needs high-profile, ritual-viewing events where the athletic excellence and tribal loyalty that corporations and fans want to be associated with is on full display annually.

(In contrast the EPL (English Premier League) with 2/3rds the number of teams and games and half the number of games in a country 1/5th the size earns roughly the same in total revenue without any playoff games.)

According to Tom Van Riper of Forbes there are untold riches awaiting the league if it held an annual tournament in corporate ticket, suite and hospitality sales alone. An NBA Tournament Cup and NBA Division Cup Series can create both the drama and the revenue of multiple Super Bowls annually.

The Super Bowl can thrive even if there are no major stars or cities involved while the NBA Finals needs at least one of the two. Creating and marketing genuinely compelling events would begin to close the contradiction without requiring specific players or cities.

And these events can occur without adding or taking away any teams' home games.

Division Cup Glory

In the Division Cup Series teams would play each team in their division twice and the overall top two would play a final cup game. The league could schedule these division cup qualifying games concurrent to the regular season and then market a Division Cup Finals Weekend event with the top two teams from each division playing.  

Imagine the NBA using the NFL's Sunday-ritual-viewing format. Since each of the six divisions have five teams there would two games played for each division giving 12 total division games every Sunday for ten weeks. 

(One team from each division would not be playing however they can play other non-division opponents as part of the 58-game regular season as special Saturday and/or Monday night games.)

This new tradition offers significant value to geographic rivalries since there will be actual spoils that go to the victor (champagne celebrations & shiny hardware). The league simply has to provide some distinction to those 8 division games and create a weekend of six Division Cup Final games.

Currently divisions offer little value for either fans, teams or sponsors. For a team to succeed or fail within their division carries no consequences other than to a team's overall record. Furthermore the league's dependence on division rivalry match-ups to drive regional interest has a low ceiling of growth and is counter productive to making the league a globally marketable product.

Inside or outside the United States, fans are not clamoring for more games between MIL v CHI, SAC v GSW or PHI v DET.  Even big market match-ups like BOS v NYK, LAC v LAL and DAL v HOU offer limited appeal considering they already play each other four times a season and the games decide nothing

Instead the NBA could promote these same games as divisional qualifiers within the US while at the same time, from an international perspective, it is marketed as an intriguing series of cup qualifiers that is familiar in most leagues. 

For example the Atlantic Division did not have any contending teams this year. At the start of the season New York and Brooklyn thought they could win but that hope died rather quickly. However with only 8 games to play against 4 familiar teams a division trophy should be something non-contending teams would focus on. 

Imagine New York, Brooklyn, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston playing division cup qualifier games on Sundays in January and February culminating with the two best teams fighting for an actual trophy to rub in the opposing city's face (currently division winners are awarded a banner without any celebration).

Also young, up and coming teams could see the division cup games as a stepping stone to prove they are legitimate contenders. If Miami were determined to rest players and focus solely on the championship then Washington and Charlotte might have been competing for the Southeast Cup (better trophy names are needed) to put a feather in their cap. 

Overall general managers, coaches and players would compete knowing it maybe their only opportunity for glory that year. It presents a serious chance to collect more tournament/finals appearances and trophies to better define and expand career legacies. And it offers an opportunity to evaluate players under one-game, winner-take-all conditions.

Using games already scheduled the NBA could grow their global market share following the blueprint of international cup contests and expand its domestic fan base with a more focused exploitation of the tribal rivalries between cities with trophies and celebrations.

Opening Season Hope

Sports leagues are in the business of selling hope (or hype depending on your cynicism). The beauty is that hope is an easily manufactured product and leagues that sell hope on multiple levels are successful. The NFL sells hope to win a championship, to win a division, to simply beat a division rival, and, most importantly, the hope to beat superior talent -- that any team can win on any given day. 

The NBA sells hope to win a championship or the draft lottery.

Sales of hope is seen easily at the beginning of a season. The NFL and MLB have great opening season traditions when fans happily buy into the notion their team has a legitimate chance to contend. The NBA's opening season seems to go in the opposite direction and their TV ratings show it. 

It is also seen by ESPN's lack of NBA-related programming. ESPN devotes more programing to the opening weeks of the NFL and MLB (and opening week MLB games) while most NBA shows won't begin until a quarter of the season is completed

The NBA needs a spectacle to start the season.

An annual opening season group-play tournament, similar to the FIFA World Cup Tournament format, is a product that can give every fan and team hope to win something, it can attract new fans with unique, urgent, playoff-intense games, it would provide professional and social media with numerous and legitimate narratives, it would drive substantial and sustainable revenue growth for sponsors, owners and the league. 

The opening season tournament could be an exclusive, unprecedented annual event that separates the NBA from all other leagues. (Unless the NHL gets to it first.)

First requirement is to establish the groups teams would play in, with a 30 team league and 16 games available it has to be 6 groups of 5 like the current division format which will give each team four opponents to play four times each.

The second requirement is to establish how to fill the groups so there is a constant variety bringing originality to every new season. There are two primary methods: a lottery method or a competitive method.  

The lottery method would be similar to the draft lottery process, teams are ranked and grouped according to success and location, so that groups are reasonably mixed with good and bad teams without excessive travel, and then are put into a drawing. This could be a likely possibility since the draft lottery night is one of the NBA's most highly rated events (fans buying hope).

The competitive method is to have teams determine their own group. The simplest way is to group teams according to the final season standings. The 2013-14 final season standings provides the following groups for a 2014 NBA Tournament:

The main benefit of the competitive determined groups is the added intrigue of what teams will be in which groups in addition to the standard playoff seeding drama as the season draws to a close over several weeks, rather than a one-night lottery event.

A perceived flaw is the groups are progressively weaker, Group A will have a stronger set of teams than Group F. But this flaw is a marketing advantage since it makes for tougher competition within the top seeded groups and allows non-contending teams, from the weaker groups, a better chance at qualifying for the tournament.

A realistic flaw is the time and travel requirements to ensure competitive balance. This is readily seen in Group A for the New York Knicks where their closest competitor is the San Antonio Spurs. Coastal teams have a disadvantage when grouped with teams from the opposing coast. Another potential nightmare group for the NBA's scheduling department is if a perimeter group occurred, for example: Portland, Minnesota, Boston, Miami, San Antonio. 

Depending on time given to play the games and some creative thinking these are obstacles that can be overcome. For example teams within plus or minus two or three seeds could trade groups, so that #19 New York could trade with the #17 Minnesota if both teams agreed. Or division cup winners could trade groups with a division rival without mutual agreement.

Teams would play each team within their group four times, two games at home and two on the road. In the interest of competitive balance and revenue growth the top three teams from each group should qualify for the tournament but would be ranked overall 1-18 when seeded for the tournament.

Group-play is starting the season with playoffs -- 5 teams go in, 3 teams get out. It would provide clutch evaluations of rookies and open marketing possibilities for teams with early season success and energy.

Allowing the top 3 teams from each group removes any perceived penalty for being placed in a difficult group as well as providing more teams and two more play-in games to market. 

Additionally with only 16 games to measure teams against there would conceivably be several identical win-loss records so additional team statistics will have dramatic and marketable results in terms of overall rankings. (As well as within the 8 games of division cup qualifiers.)

There could be groups of teams with 12-4, 9-6 or 7-9 records, within and outside of their group, so rarely determinable stats such as home wins vs. road wins and points scored vs. points allowed (or any other statistical criteria) could become acutely decisive in qualifying and ranking the tournament. 

An NBA Competition Rules Committee could rival any leagues' committee in determining opening season intrigue, group placement, relevant statistics, and even change the rules for the betterment of the traditional regular season. 

For example the goal-tending rule can be changed in the tournament to the international standard where once the ball touches the rim it is a free ball. If the rule change adds to the entertainment value without taking away from the traditional feel of the game then the committee can consider changing the rule for the 58-game regular season knowing there is a body of work to back up their decision.

An active and creative competition committee could be a potential sports laboratory where different incentives, rules and regulations can be tested and ultimately possess the capacity to add substantial marketable value to the tournament, division cup series, regular season and playoffs.

The final tournament would consist of 18 teams in 2 play-in games, a first round of 8 games, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final championship game. The last 4 teams would have to compete in play-in games to round-out the brackets properly. The winner of the 15th versus 18th seeded match-up would play the 1st seed and the 2nd seed would play the winner of the 16th versus 17th seeded match-up, these last four teams would play an extra game to win the tournament.

Assuming the groups remain in order, their rankings remain the same as well and all the top seeds win their games then the 2014 NBA Tournament would play out like so:

These events represent a multilevel treasure trove with substantial revenue potential for the NBA. In addition to new media rights, corporate sponsorships and ticket packages there is now an opportunity to predetermine tournament locations (as well as the Division Cup Finals) in the same way the NFL awards the Super Bowl and the Olympics award a host city. 

There are several options, they can split it between a few arenas or have each round in a different arena. For example, the two play-in games could be held in Denver, two first-round games in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans, then the Quarterfinals in Los Angeles and Golden State, the Semifinals in New York and the Finals wherever the newest arena is located. 

The permutations are endless but it is not difficult to imagine the NBA would act on the most growth and revenue friendly option.

Also the fantasy of every NBA executive since the Dream Team crashed the 1992 Olympics can finally be realized by taking the entire tournament abroad. The league can follow in the wake of the Olympics and World Cup and take all 18 teams abroad to compete in 17 meaningful, playoff-quality games wherever there are a couple of arenas and the host needs to see those facilities filled (and, again, without taking away anyone's home games). 

The Division Cup Series and the Tournament Cup are the type of ritual-viewing, marquis events that showcase the league's talent and create the opportunity to fill the gap between its underachieving financial standing and the outsized popularity of its players. 

Honesty is the Best Policy  

With a new structure of multiple contests there will be no necessity to hype middle of the season playoff rematches like Miami versus Indiana, Oklahoma City versus San Antonio or Miami versus San Antonio. Those games will be either a part of the tournament, division cup or regular season and their significance will depend on each teams' level of commitment to each contest and will nearly market themselves.

For example veteran teams could allow bench players to play tournament and division cup games while resting starters for the regular season and playoffs. Tanking teams could find the opposite tactic in their favor, with only 8 or 16 games to game-plan for, coaches could devise short-term strategies to win meaningful games in an otherwise meaningless season.

While these new contests do not eliminate tanking they do allow an opportunity for coaches and players to win as well as give management the opportunity to lose in the regular season without having to pretend they never competed.

The 58-game regular season, without any division or conference contrivances, would be the league's centerpiece event. Teams would only play each other in one home and one away game making the games both urgent for the teams and players and unique for ticket-buying and TV-watching fans. The overall top 16 teams would qualify for the standard four rounds of best-of-7-game playoff series as it is currently constructed.

The simplicity and honesty of this format is standard in most leagues around the world and would further assist in efforts to increase global market share. It is much easier, without knowledge of the NBA's traditions and history, to relate to a standard home-and-away format rather than wondering why the schedule allows an equal number of games played between some non-division opponents and not others.

Currently the league's 82-game regular season is a convoluted non-division and non-conference driven schedule yet the playoffs are specifically conference and division dependent. The NBA's allegiance to this conference playoff format is competitively destructive -- superior (western) conference teams either fail to qualify and/or are put under
instant pressure while inferior (eastern) conference teams are handed a smoother path.

Below is a chart comparing the various leagues' schedules.

  • 1. Percentage of Division Games played
  • 2. Percentage of Conference Games played
  • 3. Percentage of Non-Division Games played
  • 4. Percentage of Non-Conference Games played

MLB and NFL teams play 47% and 38% of games within divisions and 88% and 75% within conferences, respectively, which justifies rewarding division winners and employing conference standings for playoff seeding. By contrast the NBA's sloppy attempt to impersonate these playoff structures fail because less than 20% of games are within divisions and only 63% are within conferences. Teams play each other too often in the regular season for the playoffs to be limited by an ill-fitting conference format with division priorities.

Conferences in the NBA provide no value and arguably perpetuate conspiracies concerning the league's reliance on superstar players and big market TV ratings. Eliminating conferences and relegating divisions with their own contest allows for an overall playoff format that is equitable and just.

Knowing the season and playoffs are not a prefabricated event designed to exploit specific markets would bring in both casual viewers looking for honest entertainment as well as the sports fans who have moved on.

23 Games & 3 Weekends

There are a variety of ways to divide an 82-game structure into multiple stand-alone events that add value for all parties involved -- owners, players, coaches, sponsors, media, agents, general managers, fans and the league. If the NBA were to consider the principle behind splitting the season many more proposals would surely surface.

An everyone-plays-everyone twice schedule (58 games) leaves the NBA with 24 extra games. What can be done with these 24 games (12 home games for each team) to improve the league?

Under this proposal there are 17 additional tournament games and 6 additional division cup finals games to schedule that would most likely require three additional weekends, however no team will play more than 6 additional games -- one division cup final and possibly 5 tournament games.

These dramatic changes in structure and format are modest compared to potential windfall awaiting the league, its partners and customers.
  • The media, sponsors and the league would get:
    • greater fanatical followings
    • greater event-sponsored revenue
    • predetermined events with appointment-viewing potential
    • a grand opening season to rival the NFL's and MLB's
    • to make itself an indispensable part of global culture and traditions
  • General mangers, agents, coaches and players would get:
    • to win more trophies
    • to better define career legacies
    • to earn additional revenue and endorsements
    • to showcase alternative tactics and strategies 
    • more playoff-competitive games to shine in
  • Team owners would get:
    • revenue sharing events
    • international team exposure
    • showcase events to highlight their team
    • to stay relevant under rebuilding conditions 
    • to sell various ticket, sponsorship and broadcast packages
  • Basketball fans will get:
    • meaningful games that determine actual bragging rights
    • incalculable gambling and fantasy gaming opportunities
    • better game data to debate player, teams and coaches
    • to keep hope alive
      • to win a tournament cup trophy
      • to win a division cup trophy
      • to prevent a stronger or rival team from winning a trophy
Scheduling and logistical impediments, such as adjusting for the All-Star Weekend and the trade deadline, are sure to arise as well as business contracts, lease agreements and other financial considerations. These are the issues that can prevent any progress, it is difficult to imagine this exact architecture will find ultimate success, however the principle of selling multiple stand-alone contests to increase interest is worthy of consideration.

For hockey fans these principles may help to improve the NHL as well.