Berg is the Word: New schedule might be exactly what NBA needs

The truest mark of resilience is the ability to make something horrible work in your favor. The NBA has the opportunity to do just that as the end of its season continues to be postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The NBA Playoffs were supposed to start Saturday, kicking off two months of highly intense action (well, apart from the first round, which generally features a lot of lopsided four- and five-game series). Instead, we’re still sitting here waiting just to see if the regular season will ever come back.

For weeks now, the suspension has prompted discussion of when the league might return, but with the possibility of the start of the playoffs being pushed all the way to the summer, some have begun championing the idea that the league should push its regular season back permanently.

This idea actually arose nearly a week before the league’s suspension. On March 6, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin proposed moving the league’s start time back from mid-October to mid-December. This would, in turn, shift the start of the playoffs to June, with the Finals kicking off in August. The NBA Draft and Summer League would also be pushed back, with both likely occupying a September time slot.

The idea makes sense because it places the NBA in a more advantageous spot on the sports calendar. The NFL is not only the dominant sports television property in the country right now, it also has the highest ratings of any TV program. NFL games made up 78 of the 100 most-watched telecasts in 2019, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Koonin made his proposal amid falling viewership for the NBA this season. There is concern that the league’s popular momentum from this last decade has faltered. 

“Relevance equals revenue,” Koonin said. “We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”

The NBA doesn’t have the capability of competing with the NFL right now, so moving out of the fall (also allowing it to avoid college football) would help on its own. However, the NBA wouldn’t simply be fleeing from the television behemoth that is football. 

Moving the NBA’s best product — the playoffs and Finals — into the summer, known to be a dead period in sports when the only thing going on is MLB’s regular season, gives the NBA a chance to carve out a section of the calendar of its own, similar to how football dominates the fall.

There are some potential issues to consider. People generally want to vacation during the summer months, so the shift might backfire and hurt viewership during the league’s most significant stretch. Free agency would also be pushed back into the football season, which would draw attention away from the period that actually generates the most attention for the NBA.

However, the league might have a built-in out. If the playoffs are able to resume this season on a schedule similar to the one listed above, this season could act as a test run. If it plays out and works the way I think it might — great! If it flops and ratings bottom out, then the league will know not to do the same thing again. 

Even if viewership tanks in the summer, the circumstances of the pandemic will serve as a security blanket against any retrospective criticism of the shift and whatever revenue the league gets is still preferable to none. 

According to reports, the league is pretty open to the idea. If it proceeds, it will be interesting to see what other decisions the NBA makes in accordance. Christmas Day has long been the unofficial start of the NBA season, but will it become the actual start to the season if the league chooses to implement the change? Will the league double up on changes and experiment by adding a midseason tournament with playoff implications? Who knows, but the possibilities will be there. 

The NBA has been the most progressive league for a while now. Commissioner Adam Silver has proven that he is not beholden to the traditions of the sport if they aren’t the most beneficial option for players and the league’s reputation. Most of his big decisions have been made to uphold the integrity of the NBA’s brand and allow its stars to use their own voices, such as his ouster of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his vocal defense of players criticizing President Trump. 

Those were important and correct decisions on Silver’s part, and he’s gained a lot of popularity among players and the media because of them. But now Silver has the chance to get creative in a big structural way. Perhaps he’ll come to the decision that shifting the league schedule back isn’t feasible, but we’re going to find out over the following months just how far the NBA’s doctrine of forward thinking extends.

Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also a features editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” typically runs every other Monday.