Why not in London?

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

NBA Can Follow Football's European Drive

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 New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks travel to London this week to play a regular-season game, which has led to another round of speculation about the National Basketball Association's plans to one day expand to England and the rest of the continent.

It will never happen -- and not because there isn’t a sufficient amount of interest in the NBA in Europe and the rest of the world, or that there is a paucity of NBA-quality arenas, or that it's due to the length of the NBA regular season.

In order to determine whether the league could set up shop overseas, you have to work backward in the NBA calendar, not forward. You have to make the postseason work. That is what really matters in all sports, but especially the NBA, where the postseason occupies more than two months of the calendar without competition from the National Football League (save for its draft weekend) and thus has never been more valuable, as evidenced by its most recent national television deal.

Consider a first-round Eastern Conference matchup between, say, the No. 3 seed Orlando Magic and the No. 6 seed London Ravenclaws, using last season's series between No. 3 Toronto and No. 6 Brooklyn as a model.

The Magic would fly eight hours to London for Games 1 and 2 on April 19 and 22. Both teams would fly another eight hours back to Orlando for Games 3 and 4 on April 25 and 27.

If one team doesn’t sweep the series, both teams would fly eight hours back to London for Game 5 on April 30.

If the series stands at 3-2, both teams would fly eight hours back to Orlando for Game 6 on May 2. (No amount of 5-Hour Energy would be able to solve this.)

And if we’re all lucky enough for a Game 7, both teams would fly eight hours back to London for a winner-take-all, first-to-stay-awake deciding contest on May 4.

And if London wins and advances to the second round . . .

An overseas trip for a regular-season game in January is one thing. Three overseas round trips in the space of 16 days is another -- and impossible, despite the years and years of predictions and what-ifs concerning the NBA's expansion to Europe.

Don’t even begin to think about the entire series being played in only one city or a 2-3-2 format. That doesn’t work for competitive reasons, which threatens the integrity of the sport. Moreover, a 2-3-2 format doesn’t eliminate the fatigue that ultimately would occur by about Round Two in any event.

Some have floated the idea that, one day in the distant future, the NBA will have a European League under its banner, perhaps even an Asian League, and the respective winners of each league could play a season-ending tournament in one location in July to settle who is best, once and for all. The logistics for that concept could work.

But in order for that to feel like a worthy encore to North America's NBA Finals, it would be important for the overseas leagues to have the same characteristics as the NBA -- 30 or so teams, all playing an 82-game regular season, all playing into mid-June -- so that there is an inherent fairness to the whole exercise. Otherwise, it feels like a rich man’s Davis Cup.

It’s undeniable that the NBA is wildly more popular than American football throughout the world. In many ways, the NBA and soccer are the only two truly global team sports.  But the NFL is the only American league that could expand into London and the continent today thanks to its postseason setup.

Pretend this year’s Baltimore Ravens were instead the London Ravens.

London would have opened the wild-card round on the road at Pittsburgh and, having won, would have stayed in the U.S. -- using another NFL team’s practice site (MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, perhaps) before playing Saturday night at New England.

If the Ravens had won again, they could have stayed one more week in the U.S., again using the same U.S. training facility, before playing in the AFC Championship Game. If it then advanced to the Super Bowl, it would return to London for the off week and spend about nine days at home before returning to the Super Bowl site.

What is an insoluble postseason problem for the NBA is a small matter for the NFL. This is one reason why I expect the NFL to have not one, not two, but four teams playing in Europe in the next decade.

But not without issues to be discussed later.

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:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net