Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to think about playing games deep into the summer, that idea was already on the table. At the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference hosted by MIT, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin proposed moving the NBA to a mid-December start. Essentially, Koonin wants to move the entire NBA schedule back by two months. Currently the NBA regular season starts in mid-October.
Koonin’s idea is to move away from the NFL season as much as possible. He said at the time “Relevance equals revenue. We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”
Under Koonin’s proposal, the NBA schedule would tip-off in mid-December and the NBA Finals would wrap up in August. Koonin’s hope is that with less competition from the NFL, the NBA ratings would go up. He said “A big piece is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to enhance ratings. Sometimes, moving away from competition is a great way to grow ratings.”
This is far from the first time a proposal has been floated to move the start of the NBA season. Many suggest that casual fans don’t really care about the NBA until Christmas anyway. That’s when the NFL season is winding down and the NCAA football season is just about wrapped up. Currently, the NBA season overlaps with the NFL season, including the NFL playoffs, by three-and-a-half months from mid-October through January.
The NBA, and the NHL, have the winter months of February and March mostly to themselves. In mid-March, the NCAA gets the shine for the NCAA Tournament, but that’s only for a few days a week.
Starting in late-March/early-April, the NBA shares the sports calendar with MLB. Baseball’s Opening Day usually comes two-to-three weeks ahead of the NBA Playoffs.
By getting clear of the NFL, the NBA avoids a ratings monster that now dominates Sundays, Monday nights and Thursday nights. In addition, the NBA would avoid college football’s foothold on Saturdays. Overlapping more with the less-popular MLB could give the NBA a ratings boost.
Yet, it’s with MLB that a seemingly overlooked challenge lies for pushing back the NBA schedule.
While the focus generally lies on the NBA’s nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN and TNT, the vast majority of games are broadcast on regional sports networks or RSN’s. The national TV contracts pull in billions of dollars to be sure, but the RSN deals make up a big portion of the television pie as well.
When you remove games broadcast on NBATV, which usually pick up an RSN feed, the best NBA teams generally play between 20 and 30 games on national TV. That leaves over 50 games to be broadcast by the RSN. And those RSN’s pay tens of millions of dollars to do so.
Unfortunately for the NBA, many of those RSN’s pay tens of millions to also broadcast games for the region’s MLB team as well.
As of the 2020, here are the markets that share an RSN for both NBA and MLB games:
- Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports South/Fox Sports Southeast
- Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees – YES Network
- Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
- Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox – NBC Sports Chicago
- Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds – Fox Sports Ohio
- Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
- Detroit Pistons and Detroit Tigers – Fox Sports Detroit
- Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants – NBC Sports Bay Area
- Houston Rockets and Houston Astros – AT&T SportsNet Southwest
- Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Angels – Fox Sports Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West
- Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers – Spectrum SportsNet
- Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
- Miami Heat and Tampa Rays – Fox Sports Sun
- Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers – Fox Sports Wisconsin
- Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Twins – Fox Sports North
- Orlando Magic and Miami Marlins – Fox Sports Florida
- Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Phillies – NBC Sports Philadelphia
- Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks – Fox Sports Arizona
- Sacramento Kings and Oakland A’s – NBC Sports California
- San Antonio Spurs and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
- Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays – Sportsnet
- Utah Jazz and Colorado Rockies – AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain
All told, only eight NBA franchises don’t share an RSN with an MLB team.
It’s not a challenge for RSN to move a handful of games to an alternate channel for a handful of weeks in late-March/early-April. In addition, the early part of the baseball season regularly features day games that wrap hours in advance of the NBA game that evening.
When you start talking about RSN’s choosing how to handle months of overlap, months that baseball has had to themselves for years, things get messy. Not every television provider offers the alternate channels. Some contracts have specific language on when, if and how often their games can be bumped.
Moving the NBA calendar to run December-August vs October-June has a lot of pitfalls. It will involve negotiation between the NBA and NBPA as well. Some prominent players, like Damian Lillard, don’t like the idea of giving up the warm summer months to play basketball. You also have the challenge of attendance in arenas during the nicest parts of the year weather-wise. Some fans may not want to be inside on beautiful spring and summer evenings.
However, this will ultimately come down to TV and their money. And the RSN’s will have just as large a say in that process as the major networks.