Who’s Looking Out For the Big Picture?

I think Adam Silver has done a great job as commissioner of the NBA since he took over for David Stern in February 2014. I also admire the fact that he has lofty expectations for how he views the potential for the product that I personally love so much that it’s become beyond a hobby, more of a passion. Here, Adam Silver says: “As much as we talk about international […] I still think there’s an enormous opportunity in the United States. […] I think this game should be a rival to football. In the United States, it’s the No. 1 participatory sport. We’ve all played it. I want to focus on the game. The business is going well, but this is a beautiful game.”

And I agree! In many ways, the game has never been more aesthetically pleasing. But then, I read things like this:

Why is this the case? Why, despite the amount of sports Internet traffic directed towards the NBA, has the league not gained traction in the ratings? It seems to me that instead of the NFL fanbase, the NBA is headed towards the NHL’s fanbase: supremely dedicated and passionate, but limited in number. Now, I am certain that the NBA is figuring out ways to solve this “problem”, but my question is: do they really care? Do owners care? Do GM’s care? They’ve already got their massive TV deal through the next 9 years. What motivation is there for them to change?

About one year ago, the Philadelphia Sixers Hinkienomics movement led to many people asking of the league: is the incentive structure way too biased towards encouraging losing? How is it good if a team is going out of there way to not put together a competitive product for their fanbase and the national audience as a whole? So what happened? This. The teams voted 17-13 against any draft reform, even with relatively minor proposed changes.

Almost one year later, I’ve been fascinated by the discussion over the Hack-A-InsertNameHere strategy employed throughout these playoffs, specifically in the Houston Rockets-LA Clippers Semifinals Series. Yes, this is a valid strategy given the rules, and I don’t blame Greg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Kevin McHale etc. to employ it. But what is also indisputably true is that it makes for a lousy product for home viewers. So, what is the NBA’s leadership and teams going to do about it? BREAKING: Nothing – Note: Annoying autoplay video.

Who’s going to look into reducing the amount of games played to increase the value of each game while hopefully reducing injuries? Can we really trust this organization to make a tough decision like that? 

This comes down to a misalignment of incentives. The commissioner of this league has a job to ensure that the NBA is a product that remains entertaining and grows year over year to justify it’s contract to it’s TV partners and keep the NBA a viable business. What’s the time horizon of Adam Silver’s job? Years and years, right? Let’s say for the sake of argument, the length of the new TV deal (the largest portion of NBA revenue) – 9 years. OK, so what’s Sam Presti’s time horizon? One year, 2 at the max? Why does he care what the league looks like in 5 years? 7 years? The answer is he doesn’t. So of course he and other GM’s around the league have a vested interest in the status quo, why would they sacrifice their short term plans for a better NBA product? Why are we expecting better long-term vision from a group of people who are entirely motivated by the short-term?

Let’s talk specifics: Why is hack-a so painful to watch? Because it violates what basketball is. I don’t mind fouling DeAndre Jordan because he’s a poor free throw shooter, that’s a sound strategy and significantly better than allowing him to dunk all over you. But, when he doesn’t have the ball? When the plays haven’t been run? Where’s the strategy in that? What’s the fun playing chess when the other side can randomly make checkers moves?

Why is tanking bad for the league? Because the system is so backwards that Philadelphia can openly put together a roster built to lose and have their fans completely accept it. Why is it healthy for the NBA to routinely have one third of its league pointless to watch? Why am I watching a terrible Knicks or Lakers team on national TV? The Lakers/Knicks thing always does well in ratings because they are teams with national recognition and national fanbases, but because they aren’t putting together competitive products, do you think you are keeping those fans invested in the NBA? Or at some point do they just decide that College Basketball is a better use of their time? Because, they’re KILLING the NBA in the ratings right now.

My point is not to provide a solution for problems like these, it’s to ask: who’s looking out for the big picture? If it’s Adam Silver, all I’ve seen him do in interviews is defend the status quo because his owners, who influenced by the GM’s they’ve hired, are too satisfied with their newly flush pockets and incredible valuation increases to see the big picture. Adam Silver, now is the time for you to speak up, use the goodwill you’ve generated over your tenure and push for reform. I love your product and I will always be passionate about the NBA, I just wish there were more of me out there.

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