Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum # 3 and Damian Lillard # 0 speak to the Media of the sports complex in Orlando, Florida.
Jim Poorten | National Basketball Association | Getty Images
As the shortened national basketball season moves into the playoffs under the Orlando bubble, the rating numbers are scattered all over the place. Some networks have decided to include total viewers (including streaming), arguing that media consumption habits have changed, particularly with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, the league's stance on social injustice issues has been widely welcomed but has not been well received by all NBA fans.
One thing cannot be discussed, however: the NBA can still draw in spectators for important games like the "play-in" competition between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies last weekend.
The eighth place blazers and ninth place grizzlies fought for eighth place in the Western Conference playoffs. The play-in was added this year to give teams that were less than four games away from eighth place at the end of the shortened regular season a shot in the playoffs. If the Grizzlies had won two games against Portland, they would have made the playoffs. Instead, they lost 126-121 and the Blazers will advance.
The game played on a Saturday afternoon, with two NBA markets that rarely attract national attention, averaged 1.9 million viewers, peaking at 2.6 million viewers around 4:45 p.m. according to ESPN.
The network told CNBC that the game was up 7 percent over the NBA on ABC Seeding Games, which averaged 1.8 million viewers.
"That's a good number," said longtime sports television manager Neal Pilson of the match between Blazers and Grizzlies. "It's a good rating and a good audience. It shows games that matter to almost any sport – win or lose – and that reach a larger audience than your average league game."
"We won the day," added NBA league manager Byron Spruell in an interview with CNBC. "The fact that so many millions of viewers saw our product and the match-up and the first play-in was enormous for us."
Spruell, the NBA's president of operations, said playing with a dynamic superstar in Damian Lillard and rookie star Ja Morant was "compelling and exciting".
And since the ratings serve as an aid, the NBA plans to consider adding the box office model to their traditional 82-game season on an ongoing basis.
"We are very excited about the foundation for the play-in and where we can go for the future," said Spruell.
Players, coaches and staff kneel during the pre-game national anthem between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers at the arena of the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 4, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Kevin C. Cox | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters
Regular season series possible for next year
Spruell said the league is learning a lot from its $ 200 million Walt Disney World Bubble Campus, which was added after the NBA suspended game on March 11 because of the pandemic.
The NBA's 22-team format was entertaining and opened to 2 million viewers on July 30th. Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, said he was surprised by "the intensity in empty arenas with people who haven't." played competitively for months.
"The quality of the games was pretty good – tight, exciting, intense, dramatic endings," he said. "It was quality television."
The NBA pays attention to why the competition is fresh and exciting, and this is partly due to the lack of travel that puts a strain on players' bodies. The league has tried to adjust the schedule over the years but has not yet found a cure for "load management".
The benefits of less travel make a good case for a series-like schedule, similar to that of Major League Baseball, which Spruell says is being discussed as a possible future addition.
The model would allow teams to play back-to-back games in the same city against the same team. In addition, clubs could play all of their season games against clubs in multi-team states such as Texas, California and New York in one trip instead of making multiple stops throughout the year.
The production model could also help create scarcity if properly planned, as some cities might only see certain teams and stars every two years, much like the way the NFL works.
Spruell said the NBA will continue to "look into the data surrounding travel and how it has impacted quality play. Are there better ways to plan for teams? I think all of these things will help as learning opportunities."
Pilson said he likes the series concept for two reasons: cost and competition that is must-see.
"I'm surprised it hasn't crossed your mind at this point as travel is a league and team expense," said Pilson. He added that the second game of the back-to-back series concept could serve as "an even level of play that is fun".
Some league executives have also gotten rid of conferences, giving the top 16 teams a chance overall in the postseason, but Spruell suggested that this is not considered for now.
Pilson noted, "There's a learning curve here. They read the tea leaves. They look at the audience measurements, they look at the ratings, the players, the intensity. The rivalries and player interactions, it was good stuff. It was quality TV."
Spruell also said the league has been discussing a December schedule for the start of next season as it wants to finalize its 82 game schedule by the end of June 2021 and avoid a clash with the Olympics. "A lot of things need to be considered," Spruell said, including contributions and approval from the National Basketball Players Association.
There's more to come
All of these concepts are only talks at this point as the NBA tries to keep their current season intact. But Spruell said the NBA will continue to explore how to create more match-ups and games that "matter" as the league now clearly sees the advantage of play-in competition.
"With change and opportunity comes innovation and experience," he said. "If we have this experience on a campus where health and safety is paramount, there are a lot of insights to think about. If we're ever able to get back to 82 games on the market, that's great . "
"But is there something in between where the pandemic could take place next season, given the experience we see from our teams and players in this campus format. Is there something in between that we can achieve as well?" ? "