How the NBA Should Deal with Healthy Scratches

It’s the end of March which means it’s the best time of the year for basketball. This is largely due to March Madness and college basketball, but it also means the NBA season is hitting the home stretch. The season is 5 months old right now and there are only three weeks until the playoffs begin. As a result of a nearly 6 month season, plus the prospects of two additional months of playoff basketball many NBA teams have been and will resting their players. This has become an issue for the league because healthy scratches of star players affect the quality of the play and the fan experience. The fan experience is particularly important in the business of professional basketball because that impact is felt in TV ratings and ticket sales. Thus, there is a direct impact on the bottom lines of many franchises and the potential for even greater impacts when the next TV deal comes up for renewal. Here’s a way to address these concerns, get the players to play NBA games, and generate new revenue streams in the process.

NBA teams sit their players because they want them healthy and fresh come playoff time. It’s the right thing for teams to do for competitive reasons and it increases the likelihood of long-term health for the athlete. These are good things and should be continued. However, the issue is fans expect star players to play when they purchase their tickets a month, week or even a few days in advance. TV partners also suffer as they have purchased rights to the game and spent millions of dollars advertising it. This was particularly telling in a nationally televised game featuring the LeBron James-less (also missing was Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) Cleveland Cavaliers. The issue isn’t the players sitting, it is the expectation they would play; the expectation is the issue to address.

How to do it:

The NBA should adopt a system similar to English Soccer. The top four Premier League teams from the 2015–2016 season played in four different leagues in 2016–2017; this year’s Premier League, the Champions League, the League Cup and the FA Cup. So, while the Premier League has 38 matches this season, Manchester City (Go Citizens!) will play 14–20 matches between the other three competitions. The catch is most stars don’t typically play in the League Cup or FA Cup, at least until later rounds. Thus, fans don’t expect them to play in these matches and plan accordingly. The die-hard fans look forward to these matches to see what the young reserves bring, while others choose to ignore.

The NBA should reduce the (1) regular season to 58 games, maintain the current (2) playoff format, incorporate one (3) Champions League style event and one (4) FA/League Cup during the season. In essence, this creates four leagues in one season.

Regular Season: Why 58 games? 58 games means each NBA team plays each other at home and on the road, creating a balanced schedule. Further, the NBA could choose to put the top 16 teams regardless of conference into the playoffs since the schedule is balanced.

Champions League: This style would put the top 8 teams into a tournament with the top 24 teams from leagues across the world. This would mean 6 to 13 additional games, and would give the top 8 teams additional revenue incenting a higher finish.

League Cup: This is the one I love because it democratizes the game. This would be open to NBDL teams, college teams (if NCAA gets on board), and champions from city leagues across the country. The NBA teams will come into the tournament when it’s down to 256 teams, and college and NBDL teams one round earlier at 512 teams. It would be incredible to see the city champion from Hickory, North Carolina playing the Golden State Warriors. We could have our own version of Sutton United’s backup goalie. Even if NBA starters aren’t playing these games they would be amazing to watch.

Reducing the number of regular season NBA games makes each one more important and decreases the likelihood teams will have healthy scratches. This approach will take the game more international, potentially allowing the NBA to develop affiliations like the NBDL overseas. And, it will take it closer to the fans with the League Cup. So, while the season is shortened the NBA enhances growth prospects, players get more rest, and additional revenue streams are created. It may mean slightly less TV revenue and would mean less box office sales. The amount of games will depend on a team’s success with the low mark being 59 games (the 58 regular season matches and one League Cup game). The high mark would be 107 games (58 regular season, max 28 playoff games, max 13 Champions League contests, and max 8 League Cup games). That compares to the high mark now of 110 games. Thus, the concept would allow top teams to play a similar number of games as they currently do, while inferior teams will play less. The new normal for these teams will need to be adjusted from 82 to about 60 games.

This is my idea, but the point is to have a conversation. Let me know what you think about it and if you have other alternatives.

Thanks for reading!