“I am a little surprised by the growth in interest, specifically in free agency and the Las Vegas Summer League, but it’s really just an extension of the remarkable growth in interest in the NBA we’ve seen over the last decade,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote in an email interview on Wednesday. “The whole game experience has never been more compelling or entertaining, and each summer a fresh set of story lines emerge that keep our fans engaged.”
That never-ending search for new story lines has fueled the NBA’s surge in popularity during a time it once would disappear. With an ever-increasing appetite for coverage of the league’s offseason transactions — from the NBA draft in late June to free agency in July — and its annual summer leagues that showcase future stars, the NBA has taken hold during a period long dominated by another sport.
“For the most part, the NBA had conceded the summer — not for the most part, all of it — to baseball,” said Warren LeGarie, a longtime NBA agent and co-founder of the Las Vegas Summer League. “For them, once the draft was finished, they went dark until the October camps started.
“And that just didn’t make any sense to me.”
Now, the NBA not only doesn’t cede ground during the offseason, it gains it. From the moment the NBA Finals end, the focus immediately shifts to the NBA draft (and a new NBA Awards show), followed by breathless coverage of free agency that coincides with summer league — first with smaller events featuring a handful of teams in Orlando and Salt Lake City, followed by its showcase event in Las Vegas — with one flowing into another to keep interest in the sport at a fever pitch for weeks after the season ends.
It’s a combination that’s become irresistible both to fans and the league’s television partners, who see it as another avenue to seek returns on the massive investments they made this past season when a new TV deal kicked in.
“The NBA summer league is closely aligned with NBA free agency, which has become hugely popular,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming, “and July is becoming just another hot popular month for the NBA.”
In an attempt to capitalize on that, ESPN has doubled down on its NBA programming. The network increased its coverage of the Las Vegas Summer League this year with 25 games shown on ESPN and ESPN2 and saw massive gains in viewership — largely thanks to the presence of this year’s summer league champion Los Angeles Lakers and the No. 2 overall pick, Lonzo Ball, which drew huge crowds.
Meanwhile, ESPN also expanded its schedule for daily studio show “The Jump.” Hosted by longtime NBA reporter Rachel Nichols, who is joined daily by an array of ESPN NBA reporters and former players, the show was initially supposed to take a break during the summer. Yet the increasing interest not only led ESPN to keep the show on the air year-round, but also to have Nichols host a pair of free agency specials on the opening two nights and some shows from Las Vegas during summer league.
“Well, we knew we were jumping on a moving train; I just don’t think we knew how fast it would be going,” Nichols said. “Turns out, really fast. Offseason player transactions that used to barely rate a line at the end of a newspaper notes column have become the subject of hours of endless and breathless speculation, and even then, people still seem to want more.
“ ‘The Jump’ was an hour long during the playoffs, but we shifted back to our usual half-hour format for the offseason. I get emails or tweets almost daily now asking me when we’re going back to an hour — I keep saying, ‘Um, you know it’s July, right?’ ”
Summer league exhibitions used to be an afterthought. What was once a loosely organized collection of teams convening for games in a variety of locations across the country with little or no fanfare has now become a massive marketing vehicle across nearly two weeks every summer in Las Vegas, where the league now also holds its annual meetings.
The behemoth the Vegas Summer League has become was the brainchild of LeGarie, the longtime NBA agent who represents many of the league’s top coaches and executives — including Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks and Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni — and his business partner Albert Hall, who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the lack of organization they saw in the league’s previous summer iterations which launched in 2004.
Virtually every important decision-maker in the sport now makes an appearance in Las Vegas each summer and 24 of the league’s 30 teams took part this year — a number that will likely increase by at least one next season, when the New York Knicks are expected to return after the departure of Phil Jackson as team president.
“Nothing extraordinary happens without a harmonic convergence of a lot of things out there, and usually it’s how you harness those different areas,” LeGarie said of the event, which set a record in attendance of 127,843 this month. “Don’t forget, when summer leagues started, it was mostly seen as a necessary evil, and most players saw it as some kind of a punishment when you played in them. There was some stigma in being a summer-league player.”
That isn’t the case anymore. The next generation of NBA stars takes the stage for an opportunity to prove themselves in front of fans, often with a parade of NBA stars courtside, looking on. That’s how LeBron James, on the night of the ESPYs — the night after baseball’s All-Star Game, and traditionally the slowest day of the yearly sports calendar — became a national story when he sat on the baseline to watch Ball and the Lakers play in an exhibition game.
It was the latest example of how the NBA has managed to do something only the NFL has been able to previously: maintain interest virtually year-round in its sport. And given the momentum the sport has seemingly gathered, it seems unlikely that will change anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’ve maxed out at all,” Nichols said. “The fan base for the NBA is so young and diverse; it really is a sport that’s pointed forward. And there isn’t a barrier to entry in being a basketball fan.
“If you want to have a complex understanding of the Xs and Os, there’s certainly an endless amount for you to nerd out over, but you don’t need to see the sport that way to know that a Steph Curry three-pointer, or a LeBron James chase-down block, is exciting.”