Your Wife Might Be Grateful for Fewer Games Too: Scott Soshnick

Most sports fans want the National Basketball Association and National Football League to avoid work stoppages by reaching new labor contracts with their players.

They have short memories.

Professional basketball was never better than during the 1998-99 season, which was shortened to 50 games from the usual 82 because owners and players couldn’t agree on revenue distribution.

It was basketball bliss. Some observers would argue that there’s no reason to watch the NBA until Christmas. Others say the All-Star game. Some might even suggest the playoffs, which start in April and include more than half of the league’s 30 teams.

All are affirmations of what many players and coaches say: The season is too long. In all sports. Owners can’t have arenas sitting empty. And there are only so many circuses, concerts and monster truck exhibitions to go around.

“Fifty games,” says Steve Kerr, who spent the 1998-99 season with the San Antonio Spurs, who won the title that year, “is probably enough to determine who the best teams are.”

Isn’t that the point of playing?

The lockout-reduced season was a sprint, magnifying each game’s importance on a team’s postseason aspirations. It was engaging. It was fun. It was unpredictable.

It was the first time that the NBA had lost regular-season games to a work stoppage. Here’s to hoping that we can do it again. In all professional sports.

Let Them Bicker

Let the owners and players bicker. Let them trade barbs and insults. Let them cancel some games, then kiss and make up.

The notion of less is more is timely because, once again, a professional sports league commissioner is talking about adding games.

This time it’s Major League Baseball and Bud Selig, who says owners will “seriously consider” whether to add another two wild-card teams to the postseason schedule. Just don’t think the Sox, red or white, or the Padres deserved a playoff spot this season.

It’s worth noting that the World Series, won by the San Francisco Giants in five games, ended in November. And you can be sure that baseball owners won’t shorten the regular season from its unending 162 games in order to accommodate more postseason teams.

Selig, to his credit, backs a shorter season. But he works for the owners. And this isn’t about competition. It’s about cash.

“As global television ratings have gone up, you’re talking about a lot of money,” Selig said.

Making Noise

And there you have it.

The NFL, as you’re probably aware, is making noise about adding two games to the 16-game regular season. The league sells this, in part, as a kind gesture to fans who for what seems like forever have said they don’t want to pay for exhibition games.

This isn’t about the fans. It’s about the owners who’ve run out of ideas on how to generate revenue.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association earlier this year expanded its marquee postseason basketball tournament to 68 teams from 65. Why? Because the television networks were willing to pay for more games, which eventually will backfire by devaluing the product.

The NCAA’s announcement came after it reached agreement on a 14-year, $10.8 billion TV deal with CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting, both of which require programming that draws males ages 18-34, a group coveted by advertisers. Who knows: maybe fewer games might even lead to marital bliss. More time in the family room, less in the man cave.

Desperate Networks

Professional sports teams generate the bulk of their revenue from three sources: sponsorships, tickets and television networks, whose spending habits usually trickle down to the viewer at home. But that’s another column.

This more, more, more mentality is a reminder of what one television executive told me about desperate networks and ratings. Think Shark Week. Whenever a network needs to bolster its audience you can count on it showing a creature eating or being eaten.

It’s the same with the sports world, where owners never seem to tire of the more games equals more TV-money formula. Is anyone out there clamoring for more teams in the baseball playoffs?

As it stands, the three division winners in each league and the team with next-best record qualify as the wild card. So, of baseball’s 30 teams eight qualify for the postseason. The NBA and National Hockey League already allow too many teams in the playoffs. Making matters worse, basketball owners not long ago changed the first-round series from best-of-five games to best- of-seven. More meaningless mismatches in what’s already an exhausting postseason.

New Owners

Kerr over lunch recently discussed why there might be a lockout in the NBA. Gone are the days where an owner would tolerate annual losses, knowing that franchise value growth would more than offset the shortfall. Newer owners, though, paid hundreds of millions for their franchises, often incurring debt. If more games mean more money, so be it.

There is truth in too much of a good thing, which is why lockouts and shortened seasons just might be something for fans to embrace.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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