If there were a handicapping contest on who has the best handle on the future between the major sports leagues in North America, there’s little doubt the title would go to the National Basketball Association under its dynamic commissioner Adam Silver.
When it comes to innovation, it’s “Hi-ho Silver away.”
Silver, who replaced David Stern in 2014, has embraced the legalization of gambling in the U.S., purged recidivist owners and made huge inroads into Asia under his watch.
But definitive evidence of why the NBA is the league to watch came this week as Silver announced that the league is proposing a 78-game schedule, cutting down from the current 82-game slog it has employed since 1965.
There are a number of reasons for the shift as Silver tries to re-sculpt the endless regular-season model. First is reducing the inventory of useless Tuesday-in-January schedule stuffers that none of the players, networks nor advertisers are craving.
The dollar amounts being paid by conventional networks and new broadcast partners such as Disney or Google will more than make up for the lost revenues from regional games.
But the new sugar daddies also want a streamlining of teams. If they’re going to fork over tens of billions for NBA rights, they want super teams, appointment viewing and a global spectacle. The 32-team model reduces the likelihood of that.
The process of super teams has already taken hold as LeBron James, Steph Curry and now Kawhi Leonard assemble teams of other stars to win the NBA title.
But Silver has also been watching other sports to see how they’re maximizing revenues globally and his eye has set on soccer. He’s seen the in-season tournaments and playdowns such as the FA Cup, Champions League and World/Euro Cup club qualifiers that spice up the long eight-month trail to the championship. And that brings in billions of euros to soccer.
A 78-game schedule is just the start as Silver plans to create midseason competitions and other promotions to relieve the tedium of the regular season. The all-star game format will be adapted or allowed to die. Playoffs will be streamlined with play-in games and favourable schedules.
If these ideas sound familiar it’s because they’re the same notions I discussed – and then reported on – with a former National Hockey League executive seven or eight years ago. Even then, he was proposing that the NHL examine how the competition was thriving and adapting their business model.
Well, this exec is gone and the Gary Bettman league remains immune to changing a business model that was designed for expansion in the 1980s.
Here’s former NHL employee and broadcast executive John Shannon on the NHL’s willingness to change. He tweeted: “Lots of discussion around the NBA of changes to the regular season, in-season tournament, play-in games. … Don’t expect the NHL to change right now. A competitive regular season and the hardest post-season in North America are tough to beat.”
You can be sure this is from Gary’s lips to John’s ear.
In fact, nothing will change until Bettman’s expected retirement in 2050 (cough). The league that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity will sit back and let others get the gravy, confident that the millennial market’s tastes are just like its predecessor baby boomers.
Making the NHL’s stagnation even more pronounced are moves to revamp other sports.
As part of its new contract with umpires, Major League Baseball is moving toward automated calling on balls and strikes.
As well, baseball is radically reducing the number of minor-league affiliates it supports to lower overhead. (While many of the cities affected are protesting, this may yet produce a surge in independent leagues where winning, not player development, actually matter.)
The National Football League, too, is likely to adopt a 17-game regular season shortly, removing the useless preseason soaking of its season ticket holders. As well, the NFL is expanding its international footprint with more games and possible franchises in England and Mexico. It will also fully integrate with the gambling industry, allowing onsite and in-game wagering.
But watch Silver’s league for the clues on how you’ll be watching sports in 20 years. And see the NHL lament how it missed all the obvious tells on what to do next.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.