Thoughts on "Problem of the Weak NBA Product"
But what we have is a failure of presentation. The NBA (and its media partners, I don't know the details of the TV deals well enough to say how or way national games are chosen) seemingly runs into this problem every year. It's a fact of sports that some teams will be better than preseason expectations while some will be much worse. Yet the NBA has chosen to lock itself into these teams. On the flagship ABC games, the Knicks or Lakers will appear in 9 of the 15 matchups by the end of the season (including the January 26). And my question is, why?
We touched on it a little on the podcast earlier this week, but why does the league hamstring itself this way? It was probably not very deep into the season when the first person in league office lamented not having Indiana, Portland and Phoenix scheduled in place of the Knicks, Lakers and Nuggets.
Comparing to other sports leagues, one of the NFL's great successes has been turning Sunday Night Football into the highest rated show in America. Having done exactly zero research to back this up, the ability to "flex" the schedule to ensure entertaining matchups among quality teams is at least part of this success. British Premier League Soccer has made inroads in the US market by feeding us a steady stream of enticing matchups between top teams such as Manchesters United and City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. And while the financial imbalance among Premiership clubs allows for easier predcitions for which matches will be most attractice, the league still moves start times around to ensure the best matchups get the most exposure.
To put it another way, these leagues do their best to ensure that when they "showcase" their product on a national and even international stage, they are presenting the best aspects of the product. When selling a luxury house, the smart Realtor does not invite prospective buyers to enter through the garden level mother-in-law apartment. Rather they come in through the French double-doors. Completing the analogy, the NBA is trying to convince fans to move in by rumaging throught the basement. (At this point, I am a little bitter that the Nets have righted their ship because that would have been a golden spot for a Biggie "Brooklyn Basement" reference. Damn you, Prokhorov!)'
So why can't the NBA do something similar? Why not schedule 2 games at 8 Eastern and 2 games at 10:30 Eastern every Thursday, and allow TNT to select which to cover with a modest amount of lead time? Understanding that certain things basically have to be scheduled at the start of the season (Christmas Day and international games), there are many simple ways to ensure the TV partners have some flexibility in making sure to air an interesting game.
To put a point on this, I'll ask a rhetorical question: if some of the epic games which have been played among Portland, Phoenix, Golden State or between those teams and other contenders in either conference had replaced many of the Laker/Knick/Nugget blowouts we've been given on national games, would people around the league perceive the quality of the "product" to be higher than they apparently do?
This brings me to a second and related point. Not only is the NBA hurting itself with the games scheduled for national broadcast, but with how those games are presented. The broadcasts are either underestimating or at times even insulting the intelligence of fans of the product. The fan who seeks out a midseason game between teams in which he or she has no vested rooting interest is not one who needs to be infantalized with endless catchphrases and discussion of cliched narratives. As Rob and I talked about back in January, if many of the local announce crews can give us some actual analysis mixed in with the anectdotes and interviews, why can't the national crews? Jim Petersen seamlessly integrates some analytics into discussions of the Timberwolves and their opponents. Malik Rose and David Wesley are excellent at diagramming and explaining what happens on the court in Philly and New Orleans respectively. Again, comparing the the NFL, that league has found there is no end to the apetite in its fanbase for analysis which assumes some baseline level of knowledge of the game.
There is hope on this front, I think. New commish Adam Silver recognizes the passion for information among NBA adherents:
From a business standpoint, our fans have a seemingly insatiable desire to acquire a deeper understanding of the game. One of our biggest pushes over the past few years has been to make these new statistical fields available to the media and the public. We saw it as an opportunity to increase fan engagement and bring them closer to their favorite players and teams.
Look, I'm not asking for the telecast to be pitched to the APBRMetrics community, that would be narrowcasting in the extreme. But for the sake of the game, the league, and the fans, the aim should be a little higher than it is presently. Narrative is useful and over an 82-game schedule, necessary. But it's not sufficient for entertaining and engaging fans who are increasingly knowledgeable and numerate through the proliferation of blogs, newsites and fantasy leagues.
For an example of a guy who should have a more prominent role, why not Brent Barry? His segments on NBATV manage to be entertaining AND informative. Part of this is Bones' personality, but personality is already a prerequisite for succesful media hires. There does not seem to be any shortage of former players or coaches (the four named above as well as the Van Gundy's) who can speak intelligently about the game to the modern fan. Why not let them?