LAS VEGAS – NBA commissioner Adam Silver took the podium here in an arena just off the Mandalay Bay hotel on Saturday and announced that the league’s new big venture—the In-Season Tournament (capitalized to stress its Importance)—would be getting underway this season.
The idea has been met with skepticism. There seems to be something missing from this tournament, some element of interest that’s lacking. The league is attempting to create a EuroLeague-style season within a season, a system that works well abroad mostly because it showcases top teams from different leagues across the Continent against each other, teams that would not normally play head-to-head. You could see top Turkish team Fenerbahce taking on Olympiacos of Greece, or Barcelona or Monaco, for example.
Those games are interesting, and a bit more exotic than, say, an NBA In-Season showdown of the Hornets and Wizards of Group 2. Thus, the skepticism about the tournament is well-grounded, but there is a caveat: Doubt Silver at your own peril.
The tournament might sound flimsy, but look at the problem Silver is trying to address here. A major issue that has nagged at the NBA for the past, oh, 50 or 60 years has been timing. The league starts its season each fall with great fanfare—Rookie debuts! Championship defense! Relocated stars! But that level of initial interest plummets by Veterans Day.
The NBA has never been able to wrest the fall away from King Football, and the new tournament is not going to change that entirely. It could, though, allow the league to chip away a bit, to bring the NBA some much-needed early attention just as the NFL regular season is reaching its climax.
NFL Dominates November & December
Take this example from last season. After the Bucks-Nets game on October 26 drew an average of 2 million viewers, ESPN sent out a press release touting it as the network’s “most-watched weeknight early game in four years.” This was a very good thing.
But the following day, the NFL’s Buccaneers played the Ravens on Amazon Prime, and drew an average rating of 4.95—which translates to 10 million viewers. That was five times what the best early NBA game in four years had done just the previous night, and yet it was No. 6 among the seven NFL slots that week. The top game on Sunday afternoon drew 25 million viewers.
The NBA is not expecting the tournament to draw 25 million viewers, of course. It is expecting, though, that the league will drum up more early-season interest than ever before with the new format.
“This is a concept that has been rumbling around the league office for around 15 years,” Silver said on NBA Today on Saturday. “We thought what a perfect opportunity for a global league like the NBA, and it’s a perfect fit for our game. New traditions take time. But, all throughout sports, we are seeing new innovations, and now is the time for this NBA in-season tournament.”
Indeed, new innovations are working their way through sports, and Silver has already had some success with one of them: the play-in tournament, which was inspired by the adoption of Wild Card games in Major-League Baseball and he play-in games for the NCAA tournament.
Those games have proven to be ratings winners, and this year’s Lakers play-in game drew 3.5 million viewers, the No. 2 non-playoff game (play-in games are neither regular season nor postseason) on cable during the 2022-23 season.
You might remember, the idea of a play-in tournament in the NBA was not well-received at the outset, either. It’s proven itself, though.
It is a good bet that the NBA In-Season Tournament will do the same. The goal is modest, merely to ramp up interest in the league during a time when the NBA is mostly in an attention desert. Expect Silver and the league to meet and surpass that goal.