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LeBron Is Right: NBA Season Is Too Long

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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The National Basketball League season doesn't start until next week, but many feel it's too long a slog. Recent calls from LeBron James -- likely the most important voice in pro basketball for the next decade -- and Dirk Nowitzki to shorten the 82-game schedule deserve serious consideration for several reasons.

First, a shorter season would arguably lead to a corresponding drop in injuries, as James has posited.  Shorten the season by 10 percent -- from 82 to 74 games -- and you may not see a 10-percent reduction in injuries, but you’d likely see some sort of drop-off, a worthy objective in a league populated by players who already enter the league with a lot of mileage on their tires thanks to AAU basketball.

Second, a shorter season would result in fewer back-to-back contests, a bane of players and coaches alike.  Back-to-backs require teams on the second day to prioritize rest over preparation -- walkthroughs are typically canceled.  That’s a problem.

Third, the NBA would have even more flexibility to backload its season into the spring, away from the long shadow of the NFL and college football programming in November and December.

Yes, such a move would be a radical change -- for nothing in sports ever shrinks.  Sports only expands.  Think of the proliferation of college bowl games, or the number of rounds in MLB’s postseason, or the very existence of Thursday Night Football -- seemingly nothing prevents sports from continually opening up its pants a size or two.

This would be the moment, however, when the NBA seriously could consider a slimming of its season, thanks to its recently announced national television contract extension.

The new TV deal is almost three times the size of the previous one, and kicks in for the 2016-17 season.  This contract radically changes the financial model for most NBA teams not located in a top-three television market.  As with NFL teams, most mid- and small-market NBA franchises will start collecting approximately twice as much money from national revenue as from local revenue.

Before this new TV deal, you couldn’t find an owner willing to shorten the season -- that would have meant a decrease in every revenue stream tied to in-arena attendance:  tickets, suites, sponsorships, loaded nachos, etc.  And it still might not be an easy sell, especially in LA, New York or Chicago, where the local television rights fees are (like national rights) hitting previously unimaginable, heights.  But if ever there was a moment to tolerate a 10-percent decrease local profits, the 2016-2017 season would be it, since the upward trajectory of overall team revenues would still be phenomenal for the vast majority of teams.

Moreover, a reduction of the season doesn’t mean a reduction of the television season -- ESPN and TNT could still have the same number of broadcast windows, even the same number of appearances per team.  The league would simply be building more rest dates into the schedule.  The NBA could even choose to implement staggered bye weeks, like the NFL.

Losing 10 percent (15 percent, even?) of the regular season surely would be a welcome change for the majority of NBA season-ticket holders, and not just for financial reasons.  There was a time when an individual would buy NBA season tickets and maybe split them with one or two other friends or family members.  No more.  In today’s hyper-connected, hyper-parented world, individuals and families aren’t capable of spending 15-to-20 nights per year watching live basketball (especially when it’s so readily, and sharply, available at home or on your phone).  

Consumers have a finite amount of disposable income.  Perhaps more important, they have a finite amount of time.  Most season-ticket holders -- still the lifeblood of sports teams -- would be thrilled with a 10-percent reduction of games, even if it meant, say, only a five-percent reduction in cost.  Nothing’s more upsetting to a season-ticket holder than unused tickets.

So much of sports in these coming years will be striking the right balance between content and scarcity.  Losing 8 or 10 games of the season ultimately would make sense economically for the NBA and its players.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net