82 Games in Five Months, Is the NBA Season Too Long
Issue   |   Wed, 12/10/2014 - 00:22

While the NBA season is still very young, there have already been a worrying amount of injuries. Russell Westbrook: Broken finger; Julius Randle: broken leg; Marcus Smart: sprained ankle and bone bruise … the list goes on and on. While some of these injuries can be attributed to freak accidents, others simply cannot. The sheer number of these injuries (ranging from mild to severe) beg the question: Is the NBA season too taxing?

There is no question that basketball at the professional level is a very physically exhausting sport, and 82 games in a span of five months (not including playoffs) may be more than the human body can handle. In addition, college basketball’s March Madness has a tendency to eclipse the relatively boring NBA games during the same time period. If professional athletes playing at the highest level can be usurped by college students, then something obviously has to change about the NBA.

Another problem with the current NBA season is its inclusion of multiple back-to-backs. Many coaches, including Gregg Poppovich are known for resting their aging superstars during the second game of back-to-backs. This leads to less entertainment for fans, which defeats the purpose of professional sports leagues. In addition, according to NBC Sports, teams playing the second game of a back-to-back have a 9 percent lower win rate. This reduction is definitely statistically relevant, and skews the results of many games per year. By eliminating back-to-backs, games would, on average, be fairer and more entertaining. Finally, by the last month of the NBA season, most playoff teams are determined, and the only question that remains is the seeding. This does not lead to an exciting end to the regular season. While the NBA has recently experimented with slightly shorter games, it has never considered shortening the schedule itself. Recently, high-profile players including Lebron James and Dirk Nowitzki have called for the NBA to shorten the arduous season. Now that Adam Silver has taken over the position of commissioner from David Stern, perhaps change is coming.

The only instances of a shortened season that have occurred in modern history were the results of labor disputes between the team owners and the players. The most recent of these lockouts occurred in the beginning of the 2011-2012 NBA season. Instead of beginning in the end of October, the schedule began on Dec. 25. As a result, the NBA season was shortened from 82 games to 66. Because of this shortened season, there was more urgency for each team to succeed, and more entertainment for NBA viewers. Instead of viewership wavering during the endgame of the season as it usually does, TV ratings were higher than ever. The one problem with this setup was that the schedule was extremely compressed, and included a few back-to-back-to-backs. If we kept the same amount of games, but spread them out over the length of the regular NBA season, we would get the best of both worlds. The only problem with this is, of course, is reduced profits. Another potential advantage of shortening the NBA season is that smaller market teams could be better represented in the playoffs. These teams generally have a harder time recruiting superstars, and therefore have worse teams. The talent differential between good and bad teams tends to manifest itself to a larger extent over longer time periods, as is seen in seven-game series. By reducing the length of the season, these teams could be on more equal footing with those in big markets. Who wouldn’t want a fairer league?

If one cut the amount of games in the NBA season from 82 to 66, each team would bring in less revenue for a variety of reasons. First of all, each team would lose the equivalent revenue of the ticket sales for eight home games. In addition, teams would lose some sponsor money. Finally, the NBA as a whole would have a lower revenue, as it would have fewer game-rights to sell to television companies. Even players would make less money, as their salaries are dependent on the amount of revenue the NBA makes. This creates a dilemma for the NBA officials and players alike: What are the NBA’s priorities? I think that the owners need to sacrifice a fraction of their profits in order to both make professional basketball more fun to watch, and to protect their players from wear-related injuries. The players, likewise, must make a sacrifice. By taking less money for their services, they would likely extend their careers.

Another potential obstacle to shortening the NBA season is the fact that records from years of old would be incompatible to modern ones. If the schedule was shortened, every player or team record using a “total” value would be skewed. There would be fewer 30,000-point careers and fewer 10,000-assist careers. While this change could lead to logistical difficulties, one has almost always considered a player’s averages more important than the total he has accrued in that statistic. In the shortened NBA season, none of the “per game” statistics would be affected, as games played is taken into account when calculating those values. Thus, I do not think that the issue of incomparable statistics should prevent this needed change to the NBA.

Another point to consider is that reducing the games in the NBA season could even lead to more lucrative TV deals. The NFL only has 16 games, and is the most profitable sports league in the world. Because the schedule is so short, each game is greatly anticipated, and thus has astronomical viewership. Perhaps this same effect would apply to a shortened NBA season, to a lesser extent of course. By reducing supply, one would expect the demand for each game to rise. In addition, if the shortened NBA season started in December, rather than late October, most of the games would take place after the NFL season is over. This would allow the NBA to occupy more of the television spotlight, and thus would lead to better ratings for basketball games. Better ratings would lead to more lucrative TV deals in the future, and thus potentially more revenue for the NBA. An increase in profits would definitely make shortening the schedule more palatable to both players and owners.

While there seem to be many advantages to shortening the NBA season, and only a few disadvantages, one cannot see this necessary change happening any time in the near future. These days, sports leagues are constantly expanding, and thus, the idea of reducing one as large as the NBA is almost unfathomable. In addition, the resulting blow in revenue that I outlined earlier would cause more than a momentary hesitation among team executives who are considering this idea. Although the pros of this change vastly outweigh the cons, unfortunately, NBA teams are businesses first. The only way that reducing the NBA schedule to come to fruition is if team owners value their fans more than they value dollar signs. In our capitalist society, that won’t happen any time soon.