On a board of governors call last week, the NBA’s decision-makers discussed the possibility of condensing the 2020 offseason and shortening the 2020-21 season to 72 games in an effort to return the league’s calendar to its typical cycle, people with knowledge of the conversation confirmed. These plans — as reported by the Athletic, ESPN and the Associated Press — could see regular season games begin before Christmas, rather than the mid-January target previously discussed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts. Moving up the start date and trimming 10 games could allow the NBA to complete its season before the Tokyo Olympics, which are slated to open in July.
Make no mistake, the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to force the league, which reportedly fell $1.5 billion short of its original revenue projections for last season, to weigh painful compromises.
Reopening in December would be a tough ask for players on top playoff teams, especially those who competed in the Finals. Last season, 132 days passed between the last game of the 2019 Finals and the first game of the 2019-20 campaign. Because of this year’s four-month coronavirus hiatus and the Disney World restart, that period would be trimmed nearly in half to 73 days if the league started Dec. 22.
Of course, not every team would feel the squeeze evenly: Eight of the NBA’s 30 teams haven’t played since the March 11 shutdown, and 22 teams have been idle since the first round of the playoffs ended Sept. 2. Even so, the next two months would be a blur: The NBA must finalize its schedule and financial agreement with the players’ union, hold its draft virtually Nov. 18, conduct free agency and open training camps.
To understand why the NBA might prefer to rush back to the court, one must remember that the chief argument for delaying was to allow more time to reopen with fans in attendance. The wishful thinking went that a February start could theoretically create a path for team owners to generate money through ticket sales and other game-day-related sources, which typically account for 40 percent of the league’s $8 billion annual revenue.
The coronavirus has had other ideas. Instead of waning after a July surge, the virus reached new heights on Saturday with a record 83,734 new reported cases in the United States. With no end in sight and without a widely available vaccine, the NBA and its players are not in position to bank on a smooth, prompt and universal reopening of arenas. Each NBA team will be at the mercy of its local and state government officials to determine how and when it can host large indoor gatherings. In some jurisdictions, arenas could remain empty or largely empty throughout the upcoming season and postseason if the virus continues unabated.
There are obvious financial benefits to an earlier start. Christmas is typically the regular season’s biggest showcase, and returning the playoffs to April, May and June would be far preferable to the August, September and October slate that saw ratings tumble due, in part, to competition from the NFL, MLB and college football. Multiple reports indicated that a December restart could boost revenue by $500 million compared with a post-Christmas restart that would push the playoffs deeper into the summer or require additional cuts that would affect the NBA’s ability to fulfill its obligations to its regional sports networks by playing at least 70 games.
Biting the bullet on a shorter offseason this year would also set up a normal 82-game schedule and television windows for the 2021-22 season and beyond. Once the pandemic runs its course, the NBA, its players and fans would be positioned to return to normalcy.
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, for one, wrote on Twitter that he was in favor of a December restart “if that gets my summer off-season back.”
It helps that the upcoming offseason wasn’t expected to be filled with fireworks. Anthony Davis, this year’s top free agent, has already indicated his desire to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. The rest of this year’s crop is mediocre, as is the top of the 2020 draft class. By contrast, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are among the superstars who can become free agents next summer, and the 2021 draft is expected to include highly coveted prospects like Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green.
The bubble was designed as a bridge solution to recoup television revenue, crown a champion and buy some time against the virus. While the NBA’s ambitious plan succeeded on the first two counts, it’s becoming clear that significantly more time is needed.
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