Just a few weeks ago, at the start of the NBA Finals, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “The earliest we would start at this point is Christmas… but it may come and go.” Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 18, was the target date many front offices were targeting.
That shifted quickly, and on Friday the NBA owners settled on a proposed start date of Dec. 22 to start a 72-game season, one that would end early enough for players to take part in the Tokyo Olympics next July. That still has to be negotiated and approved by the National Basketball Players Association, but having the NBA rolling by Christmas — even without fans in the building in a lot of cities — has momentum and appears well on its way to becoming reality.
Why the change?
Starting on Dec. 22 and running the season that way will bring another $500 million in next season the owners were told, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. Half-a-billion dollars can change a lot of minds.
The players have to approve that earlier start, but as they will get roughly half of that increased Basketball Related Income — in a year they could lose a third of their salary or more to an escrow fund to help balance out the league’s losses — expect them to be on board. It’s about money for them, too.
During the NBA playoffs, there was a push from some in ownership and management to start next season as late as February or March — the later the start, the more likely fans would be in arenas for games. Meaning more money. Silver said 40% of NBA revenue comes from fans in arenas around the league and some owners wanted to grab as much of that cash as possible.
Two things changed that plan, but it comes down to owners (and players) being willing to accept some financial losses next season to get the 2021-22 season on track for a normal timeline starting mid-October — with full buildings.
The first reason for the shift is the coronavirus itself. The hope that there would be fans in the buildings for most or even half of next season has faded — the number of cases nationally is spiking, and the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said not to expect a vaccine distributed to the American public until the middle of 2021. (While the virus and timing of a vaccine have been politicized, we’re going to trust the top scientists here.)
The second reason for the shift in attitudes flows out of the first: If next season is going to be financially difficult too, better to do it sooner rather than later and get back on a traditional schedule for the next season. Just rip the bandaid off. Plus, a Dec. 22 start would mean games on Christmas Day, which will make the league’s broadcast partners happy (that is a huge day for them and the league).
The idea is to have the 2021-22 season be the “return to normal” in the sense of a regular timeline for the season and full buildings.
One thing the NBA came away with from the bubble is that the league does not want to play into the fall and go up against the NFL and college football again. Ratings were way down for the NBA Finals. While there were a lot of factors in that — the nation focused on an intense presidential and national election, more competing sports, the coronavirus shifting people’s priorities — league officials came out of it wanting to get back to a more traditional October-to-June schedule with the draft in late June and free agency in July.
With just baseball as a primary sport in June and July (and at that point in the middle of a long regular season), the NBA owned the calendar — free agents on the move dominated social and traditional media. That has not been the case in the fall.
A Christmas start with 72 games (on a slightly condensed schedule) gets the NBA back to a more normal rhythm by 2021-22. And again, games on Christmas Day this year to keep ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting happy. That became the target.
Because that is when the league can start recouping some of the money lost due to the coronavirus. It’s always about the money.