Noah Graham | Getty Images
The National Basketball Association is still holding out hope that it can continue its season, including regular-season games, according to Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner.
Silver, who spoke to reporters on a conference call following the NBA’s board of governors discussion last Friday, said the league hasn’t considered canceling the remainder of the year, as it looks to salvage some of its lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our revenue, in essence, has dropped to zero,” Silver said during the call. “That’s having a huge financial impact on the team business and the arena business.”
Silver also hinted at changes to the league schedule, saying “all rules are off at this point” while also confirming the NBA would play “significantly later than June” if games do resume.
Doing so would mean pushing back or canceling remaining league events, which wouldn’t be too much of a surprise with the pandemic pausing all major sports leagues.
The biggest events that could change are the NBA Draft Combine, which was originally scheduled for next month in Chicago, and the Summer League in Las Vegas. Asked for updates surrounding decision those events, the NBA did not immediately return a request for comment.
But if league owners are seriously considering resuming play without sacrificing games, pushing back the start of the 2020-2021 regular season is almost inevitable. And if that happens, how does the league ever return to its current 82-game format? And would players ever agree to such a move?
“It could be a learning experience for future seasons where they choose to play fewer games,” said Neal Pilson, founder of consulting firm Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports.
The Christmas idea
According to people close to league discussions, the NBA’s planning committee, which features several team general managers, have been pitching the idea to start games around Christmas for quite some time.
The idea stems from a variety of factors, including coaches and players complaining about too many games in a week, to lack of practice time, early ratings being impacted, and perhaps one of the most significant issues plaguing the NBA before the coronavirus pandemic: load management and rest.
It’s the concept of teams limiting players, especially those who are returning from injury, to a certain amount of games played throughout an 82-game schedule. Coaches use the method to allow stars more time to recover time, hoping players will be ready for the most crucial stretch of the year, the playoffs.
The resting issue is a deep one for the NBA. In 1990, late commissioner David Stern fined the Los Angeles Lakers $25,000 for resting healthy stars. But since 2012, when Stern issued a $250,000 fine to the San Antonio Spurs for resting players before a game against the Miami Heat, the problem has accelerated.
The NBA has adjusted its schedule to accommodate teams, decreasing the number of back-to-back games, and the number of games per week. But lately, the league has taken an image hit as teams still rest players, causing ratings to suffer and fans complaining about not getting full value when they expect to see star players compete.
Understanding the load management and resting method is a problem for its business and media partners. The NBA now monitors it more closely, issuing fines when teams violate resting guidelines.
While speaking at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin echoed what many NBA GMs have previously mentioned. In essence, the idea of starting games around Christmas is a time more relevant for the NBA, Koonin said.
Koonin, who the Hawks did not make available for an interview request, favors the run-and-hide from “King Kong” – the National Football League – approach, suggesting a later start would help ratings.
“Many times, at the start of the NBA season, we are competing with arguably the best Thursday Night Football game with the NBA on TNT, our marquee broadcast, and we get crushed and we wonder why,” Koonin said, according to ESPN. “It’s because, at the beginning of the season, there’s very little relevance for the NBA.”
Tony Ponturo is the CEO of Ponturo Management Group and also served as Anheuser-Busch vice-President of global media sports and entertainment marketing for 17 years. Ponturo agreed with the NBA starting games around Christmas, saying fan activity around the sport usually increases.
“The diehard will always be there,” said Ponturo. “But the more casual fan would be just coming in around Christmas Day.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
Stacy Revere | Getty Images
Recovered revenue, improved product
The NBA has already discussed an in-season tournament if play can resume this summer, which Silver said requires more dialogue, but also added would be implemented at some point.
One NBA executive said this is the opportunity to explore the concept for at least for one year, in what could be spectator-free arenas.
The executive, who spoke to CNBC on condition of autonomy as the individual is not authorized to talk about the matter, suggested opening a new season via a tournament on Christmas.
According to one top-ranking league official, the NBA has explored concepts of concluding final games in Las Vegas, as the tournament would emulate famous overseas basketball cups like the Copa del Rey in Spain.
In Las Vegas, the NBA already has built-in business relationships, and could recover some of the lost revenue via sponsorships and gambling dollars associated with a tournament, the executive said, adding a proposed sponsorship slogan for the one-and-done format.
“The NBA Cup, where every game is a Game 7,” the individual said.
And broadcast partners would almost certainly have increased prices for ads sold around a tournament, helping to recover the projected $800-plus million in lost revenue with NBA games currently suspended.
Pilson added the NBA’s on-the-court product is likely to improve if the amount of games is decreased with any new start date. Teams would have more practice opportunities, and most importantly, additional recovery time for players.
“The NBA is so solid across its schedule, that candidly, I don’t think [a reduction in games] would have a big impact anywhere except that the players would have less fatigue, and you can argue, would be playing in more games,” said Pilson, who is also a professor at Columbia University. “You get a better product, and there is real value to that.”
Would players approve?
If the league were to approach starting games around Christmas this year, it would need to negotiate with the National Basketball Players Association, which represents the players. With the current pandemic affecting league revenue, its unlikely players would resist too much as they have every incentive to agree to keep getting paid.
Player salaries are tied to a percentage of the NBA’s revenue via basketball-related income, so any decline in league revenue will also trigger a reduction in player salaries and less commission for agents.
And speaking of money, there could be some pushback when it comes to reformatting a schedule change and ending late into the summer.
According to various conversations with NBA players and agents, one primary concern is players sacrificing a portion of their typical offseason, which is used to honor endorsement and sponsorship deals, as well as hold summer camps in underprivileged communities.
But despite many obstacles, reformatting the regular-season schedule has gained enough momentum among various NBA constituencies, that now could be the time to test its business model.
Former NBA guard Jay Williams, who is now an ESPN commentator, said rethinking the schedule would help “change the landscape” of a sport and league approaching a new norm.
“Unless you’re a diehard basketball fan, we don’t have people pay attention to the NBA [in October and November] unless there are crazy storylines that come out,” Williams told CNBC. “We don’t have people pay attention to basketball until we get to Christmas Day; the kickoff season for basketball, in my opinion.”