SALT LAKE CITY — When Adam Silver headed to the stage at the Qualtrics X4 summit Thursday, he was introduced with high-energy pop music, his name was beamed across a giant projection screen in a convention-center hall, and his insights into consumer analytics and the modern media environment were cheered by a packed house. To the 10,000 attendees of this annual trade show for market researchers and customer satisfaction analysts, the NBA’s wonky commissioner is a LeBron James-like industry superstar.
Before the day’s agenda broke into panel sessions — “Marrying O-Data and X-Data,” “Beyond Satisfaction Scores: The Future of Customer Experience Metrics” and other topics incomprehensible to industry outsiders — Silver explained how the NBA uses data to track everything from League Pass viewing habits to employee satisfaction. Then, in an interview with The Washington Post, he offered a glimpse of what’s ahead, expressing hope for continued labor peace and forecasting the possibility of major changes to media-rights deals and its age limit on high school players.
In light of recent standoffs between teams and superstars such as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis, some commentators, including TNT’s Charles Barkley, have predicted that the NBA is headed for a lockout. Aggrieved owners, critics reason, will not stand for players repeatedly forcing their way to greener pastures by issuing public trade demands and sitting out long stretches of games.
“When you only have one winner every year, there’s always something [for an owner] to be unhappy about,” Silver said, noting that holdouts were more common when he started working for the NBA in the 1990s than they are today. “We don’t want to see that sort of conflict, but this is nothing new. A star player seeking a change is always going to have leverage. Bill Russell had the leverage to make himself the coach of the Boston Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain made himself the coach of the 76ers and then demanded a trade. There are a lot of stories, including former players on television, who weren’t shy about exerting leverage when they were players.”
While Silver acknowledged the need for systematic improvements to foster a more level playing field, he said he was more concerned about external threats than the potential for an internal conflict. The average TV viewer watches just 48 minutes of a 2½-hour NBA broadcast, younger audiences are often content to consume free highlights on social media rather than pay for cable subscriptions to watch full games, and waning attention spans and the proliferation of multimedia content represent serious competition.
“Our competition isn’t just between NBA teams; it’s against every other form of entertainment,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon the players, their union, the owners and the league office to come together to develop the best system for creating competition [on the court]. That will put us in the best position to compete against everything else.”
The NBA has taken proactive steps to position itself — embracing social media, changing its timeout rules in pursuit of a smoother and shorter viewing experience, experimenting with virtual-reality broadcasts and tweaking its League Pass package to appeal to casual fans.
After customer surveys revealed that many fans thought paying a single price for season-long access to League Pass was “wasteful,” the NBA shifted gears to week-long and single-game packages. Now, rather than pay $199 for the full season, subscribers can pay $1.99 to watch the fourth quarter of a close game. The NBA’s hope is that fans will be able to purchase a portion of a game with one click from a social media network within the next few years.
“We’re in an enormously competitive environment where customers dictate what they want,” Silver said. “We want you to be able to see an alert that James Harden is going for 70 points and buy the last five minutes of that game for $0.99 on the spot.”
Such plans clearly put pressure on ESPN and TNT, whose television deals run through the 2024-25 season. The NBA’s next media rights agreements will likely continue to include a direct-to-consumer product like League Pass and partnerships with traditional media companies, but they could also feature live sports broadcasting newcomers such as Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. Silver said he “felt fortunate” his league didn’t need to weigh its major broadcasting decisions in the next year or two because “things are changing faster than they ever have in our history.”
By the time the NBA’s next round of media negotiations rolls around, top-ranked prospects probably will be allowed to bypass college. The knee injury suffered by Duke freshman Zion Williamson, the projected top pick in June’s draft, rekindled debate about the NBA’s age limit, which requires players to be at least one year removed from high school graduation to be draft-eligible.
Silver confirmed that the NBA has presented a proposal to the National Basketball Players Association that would allow high school players to enter the 2022 draft. As the NBPA continues to weigh the proposal, pre-draft access to the players’ medical information remains a hang-up.
“It’s the league’s position that, if teams are drafting players directly out of high school, having that medical information becomes that much more important,” he said. “I’m confident we will ultimately get something done and reach a fair resolution.”
As the NBA sorts out the specifics of its future, this much is clear: If nothing else, the league will be younger.
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