Why the NBA is ruining their best product, part 2

Last article, I talked a bit about the NBA, and why it is not doing as well as I think it should. This article I will discuss what I see as the number one problem with the growth of basketball, and it lies with mainstream white American culture.

Contrary to many’s beliefs, America is not post-racial, demonstrated by numerous events from Ferguson, MO to Baltimore, MD, and many places in between. These instances only represent a lived experience for many in this country: that racism is still alive and well in many places around the nation. The racial bias and uneasiness definitely transfers into the world of sport, particularly basketball, as Bruce Levenson proved. Lost in the racism of the Levenson story is a key point – that much of white America is fearful of the NBA due to race. My personal belief is that the NBA having most of the power and value in the players is not a comfortable thing for white America, and this is a shame. Potential fans are missing out on one of the best eras of a beautiful sport in its growth period.

Since the 60s, the NBA has been a majority African-American sport. It is the most African-American sport in North America, and in 2011, became the least Caucasian American sport in the history of professional sports in North America. This gradual trend is making the perception of basketball that it is not a ‘white’ sport, causing many white fans to feel uncomfortable.

In an American culture where western European descendants have majority control over the look, feel and culture, basketball can be looked at as a place where that is most certainly not true. And this, demonstrated in ticket sales and television ratings, is turning white fans off. Some folks also point out that the NFL is majority black, as well, but the NFL is not a player driven league. Basketball is almost entirely a player driven league. America’s “post-racial” racism is represented by the NBA: white former fans may use coded language, or have excuses, but the NBA is not as culturally relevant for white folks.

The most disturbing thing for me is that the NBA just finalized the Levanson issue, selling the Hawks to the highest bidder. Unlike the Donald Sterling issue, which came under intense media spotlight and coincided with a long history of bigotry and racism, the Levanson issue was said from a business owner’s perspective, and mostly named what many owners of NBA teams feel: they want what’s best for their business. The NBA lost out on an opportunity to talk about the biggest issues in America, and use their platform for honest conversation. Why are the Atlanta Hawks drawing a different demographic than their metro area would suggest? Why are there not very many white fans in the NBA? Why are all majority owners, nearly all general managers and coaches and much of the executive staff of teams white, in a league with mostly black players? Why are players like Ellis scoffed for their attention to professionalism with game streaks, while hockey players get lauded for their toughness?

So, shame on the NBA for not taking some of what Levenson wrote and creating a dialogue surrounding it. The fact that white America is not feeling cultural attachment to basketball can be a great opportunity for empathy for white folks who feel that marginalized groups need to “get over it” and “work harder”. The more attention shown to some of the questions above can convince many of the facts, that race is a powerful piece of American culture, and cannot be swept under the rug. Although this issue stems larger than basketball, a dialogue could help the sport, too. With white America still not ready for a sport that is culturally dominated by African American men, it is causing a multitude of fans to be missing out on what could be the highest quality playoffs out there.


The NBA is ruining their best product, but not for the reasons you think

Sunday marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs. The 82-game regular season ended Wednesday, and marked the end of a tumultuous 12 months in the NBA. Starting with Donald Sterling a year ago, Bruce Levenson in the fall, a slew of high-profile injuries, and some marquee franchises struggling, this 2014-2015 season could rank as the most disappointing in recent memory in terms of fan interest. The NBA may have the best product they have ever had, and is in a key crossroads for their future as a business and a cultural symbol.

Basketball is the second most popular sport in the world, and is continuing to grow. In addition, basketball has cultural appeal that extends across so many cultures and demographics. Basketball, as a sport, seems to be in a period of marked success – more kids are playing basketball than ever, and it remains the most popular youth team sport. Internationally, foreign teams and prospects are becoming more competitive, and 2014 set a record for most international players on the opening roster. So basketball is succeeding. But what about the NBA? How come NBA’s viewership was down in 2014?

In this article, I will address a couple issues that I have seen with the NBA. The number one reason for their decline in viewers, in my opinion, deserves its own post. I will get to that later.

One of the biggest issues with viewer interest comes down to the nature of the sport of basketball. One player influences team success more than in any other sport. Lebron’s return to Cleveland this year surely shows validity in that statement. Unlike other North American sports franchises, where the value is in the team name, locale, and stadium, NBA franchises are mostly tied to the players on that team. When Lebron came back to Cleveland from Miami, the Cavaliers doubled in value. Outside the Lakers and Celtics, teams are popular because players are popular. The NBA is a player driven league – considerably more so than any other league.

LeBron James may be the most marketable, and valuable, athlete on the planet.

Tied to this is the variance in talent in the NBA. The best players (Lebron, Kevin Durant) are superior to the weakest players by such a wide margin, wider than in sports such as baseball, football or hockey. Over the course of NBA history, stars have dominated the league: Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird, and Jordan are the prime examples. When stars didn’t dominate, mainly from the “Bad Boys” Pistons teams in late 80s and early 90s, it was not due to strategy or skill as much as intimidation and brute force. Great players are what win NBA championships.

Modern basketball has changed the landscape of NBA success to a certain degree. In the past 5 seasons, stars are choosing to play together, creating several powerhouse teams. The rise of analytics has given teams without stars, or at least with less star power, a better chance to succeed. This has promoted some of the most efficient and entertaining basketball in years. The Warriors have the league’s best record and may be the most fun team to watch in the league; those two identifiers coupled together may be a first for the league since the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. Competitive balance in the west makes every team either a lot of fun or a legitimate title contender. The Hawks in the East won without having any names that a casual NBA fan would know (in fact, no one on the Hawks cracked 30 points this season; James Harden scored that many 35 times). In addition, players are bigger, stronger, and in better shape than ever. In addition, due to the rise of AAU youth leagues, young players can come into the league ready to contribute more than ever before. Basketball, at least amongst the top 8-10 teams, is played at a more competitive and higher level than ever.

So what gives? Why is the NBA mired in low interest? One reason that is often talked about is the season length. In the most recent period of early April, even the most diehard of NBA fans are longing for the season to end. The season drags on forever. A side effect not alaways talked about is the drain this has on the players. Due to the fact that the game is played on a higher level every night, the game takes a huge toll on the body. This is not the 1970s, where players didn’t run hard every possession and little contact was allowed. Modern basketball is intense, physically demanding and a contact sport. This poses problems, particularly with players who treat professionalism seriously. The Mavericks’ Monta Ellis hates missing games, and had a 237 consecutive game streak recently snapped. Many players take their nightly consistency seriously, but what that leads to is more injuries. This season endured unending injuries to star players, which diminished the product and the fan interest.

The myriad of injuries is a morale crusher to the fans, but the wear and tear on players may diminish careers. The NBA and its players may need to recognize that less is more when it comes to games and scheduling. The season is far too long and grueling for players to maintain their elite physical abilities, so either the league needs to go to a year-round model with 82 games, lessen the number of games, or both.

Next post, I’ll address the number one reason I believe the NBA is not living up to the potential of its athletes and its sport. Stay tuned…

Evaluating Playoff Formats in the Big 4

by Conway West 1.7.15

A couple weeks ago, my colleague JD Cam published an article reevaluating the college football playoff system. As Tony Kornheiser once wrote, “College Football would be the most popular sport in the United States if the NCAA didn’t get in the way.”

While college football has revamped its postseason format, most professional sports ranks are much, much slower to amend their processes. Baseball has made 4 changes (with only 3 involving number of teams) to the postseason format in 114 years. The NFL, king of innovation if it makes an extra buck, was met with vehement disapproval when they attempted to expand their playoff system (although playoff expansion now seems inevitable ahead of the 2015/16 season). The NHL and NBA have made only minor changes recently.

This does not mean the playoff formats all fit their sport perfectly. When I think about the effectiveness of a playoff format, I think of two main variables:

  • Adequacy of transition from regular season: Does the regular season do a good job of demonstrating the quality of the teams in consideration? Does it separate out the good/bad while still remaining vital and engaging? Do the teams that make the postseason deserve to be there?
  • Pace and purpose: Does the best team usually win? Does the format allow for variability while moving efficiently enough to not be redundant? Does every team have a chance to win it all? Should they?

Winning percentage standard deviation comes up big on this topic for me. Reasoning is explained here, although the article focuses on competitive balance. For my study, I care about standard deviation only because I DO care about random variation. The NFL’s shorter season results in higher deviation than MLB’s, for instance, but this proves my point that the best teams don’t always make the postseason.

Sport: NBA

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine 3 division winners plus 5 wild cards in each conference. Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long playoffs and season ensure little random variation in winners.

Cons: Both season and playoffs drag on; many inferior teams make the playoffs.

Basketball is a graceful, athletic game, but also a grueling one. While not at the same taxing level as football, basketball takes a lot out of the athletes who play, and is hard to maintain energy and consistency over the 8 month season. Players (sometimes even whole teams) take nights off, and this results in diminished product in the regular season. All 82 games just don’t matter.

A single basketball game does a decent job at showing the best and worst teams each game. This is supported by the standard deviation of win percentage: .254 is by far largest of any of the sports. This means the bad teams are bad, but they also show they are bad every night. The teams that make the playoffs would rise to the top in far fewer than 82 games.

The playoffs for the NBA are far too long as well. As I said, the best team typically wins in basketball, which is supported by the number of times upsets occur in the playoffs, as well as the distribution of championships within the sport. With each of those figures being so low, there is no need for 7 game series every round of the playoffs. Once again, this diminishes the product. It does make for higher profit, and so the 3 month NBA playoff marathon is here to stay. Another issue is the amount of teams that make the playoffs: 16 of 30 teams is a whole lot, and the bottom 2-3 teams usually aren’t very good. This has been made worse by the disparity of the conferences in the past decade or so. With the West being so much better than the East, there is an undeserving team or two that makes the playoffs in the east. Conversely, the west is loaded and has a couple good teams missing out. Look at last season for a real case of that.

Solution: have the NBA season start at Christmas, run 60 games, and cut the first two rounds of the postseason to best of 5, at the least. Another possibility is modeling the NFL postseason, giving top teams byes from the first round, and cut the number of qualifying teams in each conference to 6 or 7. Also, get rid of conferences for playoffs and have playoff qualification only determined by best record.

Sport: NFL

System: 32 teams play 16 games, which determine 4 division winners and 2 wild cards in each conference. 4 rounds of single elimination. Top 2 qualifiers in each conference get first round bye.

Pros: Short, exciting season; fast playoffs; excellent playoff size (12 of 32 teams make playoffs); incentive for regular season performance in playoffs (home-field advantage, first-round bye).

Cons: The best teams don’t always make the postseason; division winners can be inferior due to scheduling anomalies; short season leads to higher random variation.

The NFL’s regular season, as compared to basketball, is far too short. It does not get the best 12 teams into the playoffs every year, by virtue of random variation. But, given the nature of the sport, this isn’t a bad thing: people like football for the “Any Given Sunday” approach. It is fun to think that your team has a decent shot every year. With that being said, the recent (and not so recent) discoveries of health risks make it ignorant to write convincingly that football should expand its regular season in order to better justify the entrants to postseason. It just isn’t worth the extra health costs (even though the league will keep trying).

Besides the lack of certainty that the best teams make it into the playoffs, the NFL postseason is about as close to perfect as one could hope, and perfect for the nature of the game. Football is meant to be a game where one game matters a lot (whereas the opposite is true for a sport like baseball). The NFL postseason moves fast (4-5 weeks), has a perfect amount of teams (12 feels right), and ends with a wonderful blend of variability and predictability (the best teams “usually win”, but not anywhere close to “always win”). My personal favorite part is that NFL postseason creates incentives for in-season performance: a bye-week in the postseason can be immensely valuable, and while some debate the effectiveness of the bye-week incentive, data supports that the bye week matters.

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Some will also complain that poor division winners can host playoff games (like the Panthers with 7 wins this year.) This is a valid concern, and one that could easily be fixed: take away the division winners and just have the best 6 records make the postseason from each conference. But, due to the method of scheduling the NFL uses, I believe this could unfairly reward teams who are fortunate enough to play easy schedules. A 6-win division winner is not ideal, but they did win their division, which should be viewed in the same manner as a conference winner in the NCAA Basketball tournament.

Possible Solution to format: Create a world where football is unquestionably safe from long-term crippling effects. Then, expand the regular season to 20 games. The NFLs proposed changes include expanding Wild-Card Weekend with an additional two teams and giving only the top seed in each conference a bye and having the rest play seeded match-ups.

Sport: NHL

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine top 3 in each division plus 2 wild cards in each conference (8 teams/conference). Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long season ensures little random variation in qualifiers; best trophy in sports

Cons: both season and playoffs drag on, and many inferior teams make the playoffs; unbalanced conferences create unequal opportunities to make playoffs.

Hockey has a similar issue to NBA – it is the only sport with a longer season in terms of calendar days between the beginning and end of season. It also has a similarly long playoff format. Hockey is also a physically taxing game, and the long season takes its toll on the players – Hockey players deal with a high injury rate, with some of the data suggesting its games are the most dangerous when considering the length of season hockey players endure. Hockey players also have the second-highest concussion rate out of all sports, once again exacerbated by the frequency of games in a season. The applicability of this data in the playoff conversation is that hockey teams vary greatly as the year progresses, thus parity is huge in the league. It also speaks to the necessity of the entire hockey season – if the NFL season shouldn’t be at 20 games for injury concerns, how can we justify hockey’s 82 games?

Playoff Meme

In addition to roster turnover creating parity, the sport itself has high variability at the professional level. Only baseball has higher playoff parity, which speaks to the nature of hockey that the best team doesn’t always win. This data may support the idea that while the regular season is too long, but the already long hockey playoffs are perhaps too short to determine the true deserved winner. This contradiction, in my opinion, lies at the center of the waning interest for hockey in North America.

Possible Solution to format: Since hockey is losing interest from the general public, I propose something wacky altogether for their playoff format. First, balance the two conferences, which were realigned and unbalanced just 2 years ago. Then, do a drastically shorter regular season. Maybe create a huge, 24 team playoff, with convoluted bye week schemes and seeding. Or, go back to what Lord Stanley wanted and have challenge games for the cup.

Sport: MLB

System: 30 teams play 162 regular season games to determine 3 division winners, plus 2 wild cards in each league (conference). 2 Wild cards play a one-game series, followed by 5, 7, and 7 games for the next series.

Pros: Long season eliminates outliers from postseason contention; Addition of second wild card creates strong incentive for winning division, leading to more meaningful games

Cons: Success in postseason has very little correlation to success in postseason; long season can lose casual fan.

Let me first say that I love MLB’s regular season. While it may not be the most vital nor engaging, I think it is incredibly valuable to have such a huge sample size, and generally leads to a playoff field that deserves it – if you are not in the top 5 in each league after 162 games, no length of season should save you. The addition of the second wild card is huge for the regular season in the sport – no sport has a higher percentage of meaningful games in the regular season.

What is gained in the regular season, though, may be lost in the postseason. Postseason parity in baseball makes the playoffs a different sport. The huge increase in off days means that one pitcher has a much larger effect (see Madison Bumgarner in 2014), and a dominant bullpen of 2-4 arms is more valuable (see Kansas City Royals, 2014). Managers have to manage games differently, and roster needs are different. This is fun – it makes each game of the MLB playoffs feel more like the Super Bowl – but can punish teams built for regular season success. Additionally, the 1-game wild card playoff feels strange for baseball. It brings drama but baseball is a game of winning series, not individual games – what could be more deflating than losing a one game playoff to determine true post-season entry after having an excellent 162 game record.

In addition to the game frequency, weather becomes a huge factor on the edges of the baseball season. Expanding the playoffs is not an option since no one likes the idea of playing baseball in snow. Therefore, whatever additions to the current structure that is proposed (3 -game wild card playoff) should be met with far less off days in the postseason.

Solution: Cut the regular season to 145-150 games. Expand playoffs to be a 3/7/7/7 format, with less off days between.