Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets takes a shot to tie the game and force overtime as P.J. Tucker #17 of the Milwaukee Bucks defends in the final seconds of regulation during game seven of the Eastern Conference second round at Barclays Center on June 19, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Elsa | Getty Images

National Basketball Association executive Byron Spruell has some work to complete before the league’s next media rights deal. The NBA wants a rights increase, and developing new concepts that attract viewership could assist.

The league’s push for a mid-season tournament is one option, but it needs to gain momentum throughout its ownership group. The players union will have a say, and the other constituencies (team executives, sponsors) will chime in, too. And then there’s basketball historians and traditionalists that will make a fuss.

It’s here that NBA commissioner Adam Silver is entrusting Spruell to help create the blueprint for the mid-season tournament. But early signs suggest he needs more incentives to make it work.

What’s in it for the viewer?

The NBA’s concept for a mid-season tournament derives from its observations of international soccer leagues. European basketball clubs also incorporate tournament-style games, and one NBA team executive noted the massive fan support those games get.

The concept would include group games — essentially enhanced versions of regular-season contests — and teams that perform well would be invited to the mid-season tournament. The NBA is testing the idea in the WNBA for its 25th anniversary and called it the “Commissioner’s Cup in-season competition.”

WNBA players will divide a $500,000 prize pool. The winning team gets $30,000 per player, runner-up $10,000 per player and the MVP of the Commissioner’s Cup title game takes home $5,000. Google is a major sponsor of the WNBA tournament. And Amazon is the media partner that will stream the games on its Prime video service.

The NBA wanted the concept for its 75th anniversary, but the pandemic changed things. So this year, league executives will study the fanfare of the WNBA’s format.

“It’s a visionary idea,” said long-time media executive John Kosner of the tournament. “I think we’ll see more of that.”

The NBA will use money as the main incentive for team staff and players. League officials hope this reward-based business model will drive players to compete. And adding compensation for player charities, especially social justice organizations, could help get their approval.  

The thing is, what’s in it for the viewers? What will make people watch a mid-season tournament, especially with the National Football League in progress? And how would the NBA keep fans engaged?

Deputy Commissioner of the NBA, Mark Tatum holds up the card of the Detroit Pistons after they get the 1st overall pick in the NBA Draft during the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery on June 22, 2021 at the NBA Entertainment Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Steve Freeman | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

Adding a draft pick

Kosner, who lead digital media at ESPN until 2017, noted consumers have more options outside sports. Covid-19 disrupted sports consumption, and viewers have identified other entertainment options. For leagues outside of the NFL, innovation around its product is a necessity. Even if it means disrupting the tradition.

“You have to convince people that there’s a reason to watch,” Kosner said. “You have to make your product as good as you can because your no longer competing with another sports choice — it’s everything else that people can view and can do.”

In a fall-winter sports cycle, the NBA’s 82-game season has become a bit stale. It has moments, like the Christmas Day games, and Thursday nights are entertaining with Turner Sports’ production. But players resting is still an issue, and that impacts the national contests.

Its top superstar, LeBron James, moving out west didn’t help matters, either.

This season, the league’s viewership averaged 1.3 million viewers throughout its national games on ESPN, ABC, and TNT. Covd-19 impacted that, but pre-pandemic numbers: for the 2018-19 season, the NBA saw an average of 1.79 million viewers. And the year before James left the East (2017-18), the average was 1.89 million.

Viewership metrics are somewhat tricky to comprehend, and the NBA’s product is strong for the 2020-21 postseason, including solid play-in viewership featuring James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

But to expand engagement and increase interest around a mid-season tournament, some in league circles floated the idea of adding a draft pick to the stakes.

The NBA could place the pick between the No. 14 and 15 slots, protect the lottery teams, and add an asset for teams that win the tournament. The league can call it the “commissioner’s cup pick” or some other title sponsor to pay for the naming rights.

The pick rewards the team that stays competitive during the regular season’s early stages. It creates an asset for team owners that executives can leverage in possible trade scenarios. And finally, that creates engagement, as social media channels are filled with NBA fans examining ways to improve teams via trades and draft picks.

Byron Spruell, President of League Operations speaks at the 2017 NBA Finals Cares Legacy Project in Cleveland, Ohio.
David Dow | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

The NBA tossed around the idea, but so far, it didn’t get enough support. There are concerns about possible backlash and of empowering good teams with star players. If teams like the Lakers and the loaded Brooklyn Nets, that many expect would win any tournament. But with a knockout-style match, similar to the NCAA March Madness games, even the power teams could have a bad night.

Another team executive favored adding the draft pick. The individual  called the concept, The NBA Commissioner’s Cup tournament, where every contest is a Game 7.

A peek at the viewers for recent postseason Game 7s: The Nets vs. Milwaukee’s Bucks averaged 6.9 million viewers. And the underdog Atlanta Hawks took out the power team – Philadelphia 76ers. That Game 7 that attracted 6.2 million viewers. Postseason elimination games are fun, and attracts sports fans.

The elimination style could help in the regular season too, said Kosner. He agreed with the incorporating the draft pick, adding the tournament  ”creates another event the [sports] betting entities would get excited about. So I think it’s a good idea and hope that they’ll do it.”

“It’s more quality programming,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said. “I can’t imagine the viewer would object or not watch. The idea of the mid-season tournament has an appeal in terms of creating more exciting and competitive games that might otherwise not exist during the regular season.”

NBA betting on patience 

Pilson, now a professor at Columbia University’s sports management program, cautioned about player injuries, though.

Tournament games could raise intensity levels, and force players to play through nagging injuries they could otherwise sit out. After all, the NBA’s postseason is the most important stretch of the year. If key players are injured during a high-pressure tournament game, championships could be at risk.

But with the right incentives, the league believes even the best players would be willing to help teammates earn more money.

Draft compensation could return to the bargaining table as the NBA continues designing the blueprint. Again, the plan is to examine how the concept works with other properties, including elements in the Basketball Africa League.

Configuring home and away games will also be a challenge, and determining which part of the calendar to install the tournament is critical, too. There’s talk of inviting European clubs. And placing knock games in one location – more than likely, Las Vegas. Should Spruell and Silver develop the tournament’s logistics, and owners and players approve, league officials are betting patience will allow it to grow on fans.

The NBA renewed interest around the All-Star game. The play-in race is a fun concept. Now its exploring with its 82-game campaign to make that more exciting, too.

“If they created a mid-season tournament, with something at stake, you’ll get people to watch,” Kosner said.

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