LeBron James made his feelings known. The owner of the National Basketball Association team, Mark Cuban, did too. Some like it, others don’t.
But the NBA play-in games went from a pandemic necessity to a potential permanent feature.
The play-in games pairs place 7-to-10 in each conference, with the winners securing the final four play-off spots. The NBA installed the games last summer as the season was interrupted due to Covid-19.
“It created some excitement for our TV partners and for our fans to watch games that are important and meaningful,” Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver told CNBC when asked about the games. “And from an additional entertainment aspect, it is an extra asset for our media partners.”
The latest viewership news is that the NBA has reached over 5 million viewers for the premium play-in: James’ Los Angeles Lakers against the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors. It’s not football viewer statistics, but nothing in American sports will ever match the NFL. And few media pundits will frown at 5 million viewers on a Wednesday night.
Now NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will now navigate the politics of ongoing playoff play-in games. He will have to deal with the basketball traditionalists, the egos in the ownership group and the players who will make their feedback known. But Silver’s job of convincing his NBA constituencies shouldn’t be difficult, and here’s why.
Last year, only one play-in-game took place — the Memphis Grizzlies against the Portland Trail Blazers — because there were inequality guidelines. The Blazers-Grizzlies averaged over 1 million viewers, peaking at 2.6 million on a Saturday afternoon in August. For two teams with a small market, that’s a success for ESPN.
Turner Sports said the Boston Celtics victory over the Washington Wizards’ seventh series attracted an average of 2.5 million viewers. And the lower-ranked game (Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers) averaged 1.4 million viewers.
And James helped ESPN average 5.6 million viewers with his appearance. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors 103-100 thanks to James’ winning shot. ESPN also averaged 2.2 million viewers for the first game with Memphis Grizzlies rising star Ja Morant.
“The early returns are good,” said NBA chief Evan Wasch, one of the people zegt James suggested getting fired for its part installing the play-in. Wasch is the executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics. Part of his job is to help format the games, which were on the NBA’s radar before arriving at the league.
With the potential of six new games added, that should only help the NBA come back to the negotiating table with its national media partners. Early speculation is that the NBA would only seek about $70 billion for new rights. The current agreement runs until 2024.
But if fans look at what they are so far, things could get interesting for Disney and the new Discovery-WarnerMedia.
Like James, Cuban was adamant about his distaste for the games. The point is, he remarked when his Dallas Mavericks were about to enter the play-in. However, the Mavs escaped and Cuban went back to discussing NFTs. But even he can’t deny that the play-in games are right for his wallet.
The play-in games are actually play-off games. For the seventh seed, it ensures at least two elimination games at home. For example, if the Mavs had finished seventh, they would play exactly the number of guaranteed games at the American Airlines Center, just like they would in a traditional playoff format. And if they win the play-in and get far into the playoffs, that’s more gameday revenue, and that jersey patch also increases in value. The play-in stats don’t count, but the money that comes in does.
“The seventh seed finishes in a net positive place from a team business perspective,” Wasch said. “That seed gets an incremental advantage by being in this play-in by having virtually more [playoff] home games.”
How can Cuban argue against that? When asked if his stance has changed, Cuban remained silent in an email. But when asked his perspective, Sarver said, “I’d have no problem supporting it.”
Take out the boring games with the Pacers and Wizards and the play-in games were fun to watch. But it’s the competition for the games that has increased fan engagement with the NBA.
During the last two weeks of the regular season, the play-in races were one of the most talked about topics in the sport. Would the Lakers fall? Could Curry come in? Plus there was James’ distaste for the format.
“It certainly hasn’t hurt the interest around the play-in that some of our prominent players and owners are talking about it, both positively and negatively,” Wasch said.
He added that the race for the sixth seed was intensified as teams wanted to avoid the play-in. It is here that the NBA has created a race in the middle of the standings. Discussing the topic with CNBC, a prominent Western Conference team manager noted that 24 teams competed for positions over the past few weeks of the season. When asked if he would support it permanently, the director answered yes. And Sarver noted that it discourages teams from tanking for position for draft picks.
“What we’ve learned is that our teams and players are responding to the competitive dynamics presented to them,” Wasch said. “If you give teams the chance to earn bigger rewards for moving higher in the leaderboards, and those rewards are too big compared to what they were traditionally, you’ll see a response.
“We saw it in the bubble last year with the teams in the Western Conference fighting to get into the play-in,” Wasch added. “And we’re seeing it quadruple this year because it’s just not eight and nine.” [seeds]. … If that continues, this format would be a success. So far, all lessons have been positive.”
Viewership for the Lakers-Warriors game was solid, but that number would be hard to catch again. It featured two of the top athletes in the world (Curry and James). The chance that the two will meet again in that position is small.
But after Silver has team owners lined up, the next step is to convince the National Basketball Players Association. At that point, the NBA will reveal how much these play-in games mean to the league.
“I think they’re going to play the play-in again,” said former NBPA director Charles Grantham. “The point is, what will it cost them to get the players to agree? There’s no question that the next deal will have to be negotiated.”
Now the director of the sports management program at Seton Hall, Grantham said he expects the NBPA to request that the revenue from the play-in games be added to the NBA’s gross revenue, which they share with the players in the form of basketball-related earnings, according to their existing agreement.
And eliminating pre-season matches can also be an option, as players may have questions about wear and tear on their bodies. But these days, teams have rest strategies, so the obstacles shouldn’t get in the way of an agreement.
There are still things to figure out, honesty is one of them, but the NBA found its new asset. The play-in games are fun and prove they work.
“If we found that fans felt it was devaluing the regular season, that would be something to look at to see if we can somehow peep it to adapt to that,” Wasch said. “But I’m optimistic we’ll find that it was actually a welcome addition.”