Did you know that the NBA has the best YouTube channel of any major North American sport? This is remarkable considering it is a distant third in terms of revenue. It’s also a fascinating exercise in fan outreach, as the NBA actively encourages fan-made videos and other content while other sports use restrictive copyrights to make themselves the sole distributor of content. In addition to these policies (and the fact that I like basketball), it’s worth noting that while football is clearly the king of team sports in the US (especially if you include college football), there’s a risk that increased awareness of concussions and other injuries could cause football to lose out on revenue in the future. This could happen through changes in demand, with fewer people wanting to watch football, or changes in supply, as fewer athletes want to play. If you think it can’t happen, don’t forget that boxing used to be one of America’s most dominant sports.
Will this same fate happen to football? It’s impossible to know, but as a basketball fan, I hope the NBA is be prepared to try and take over that market space. Before they are under the spotlight and the opportunity passes, they should implement some reforms. An important one would be the shortening of the season.
First let’s look at several sports to see the relative importance of the regular season in determining the eventual champion.
In 2014 the college football championship was determined by a single game, the BCS national championship game, played between the Florida State Seminoles (entering the game with no losses) and the Auburn Tigers (entering with one loss). These two teams qualified for the championship through a computer algorithm (which took into account some human polls as well). Had either of those teams lost an additional game, they would not have made it to the championship. Most observers thought the ACC was an easier conference and had FSU lost an ACC game, they would have been eliminated from contention, and had Auburn lost another SEC game (most likely source of an additional loss), they would not have made it to the SEC title game and would not have been selected. A similar situation occurred in 2013, where a one-loss Alabama team met an undefeated Notre Dame team in the title game. Had either of those teams lost an additional game they would not have been selected (and Alabama would likely have not won the SEC).
Assuming most teams play in a conference championship to qualify for the BCS title game (and now for the College Football Playoff), that’s 13 games where more than a single loss automatically disqualifies you. That means that at best, you can lose 7.7% of your games to qualify for a championship, and even then, many teams that lose a game are not selected. The only way to be truly safe is to go undefeated.
In 2014, a new system, the College Football Playoff was devised to allow the top 4 teams to have a chance at the national championship. Last year, the 4 teams picked contained 3 one-loss teams, 1 undefeated team, and excluded 2 one-loss teams. The number remained the same, you can lose at most 7.7% of your games to qualify, and even that may not be enough.
Bottom line is that in college football, every game has a lot riding on it.
Since 1990, 12 teams make it to the NFL playoffs: 8 from each division, and 2 wild cards from each conference (4 divisions to a conference). In 2012, the teams with the worst record to make the playoffs were the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens, the Washington Redskins, and the Minnesota Vikings, all at 10-6. The Chicago Bears were also at 10-6 but did not make the playoffs. The Redskins and Ravens were division winners while the Bengals and Bears were wild cards. But you essentially could not lose more than 6 games, which is 37.5% of the regular season.
In 2013, the worst team was the 8-7-1 Green Bay packers who would not have made the playoffs if it were not for their easy division (although they did win their first playoff game). For them, essentially half the regular season was meaningless. The worst wild card teams were the 9-7 San Diego Chargers in the AFC and the 11-5 New Orleans Saints in the NFC. The only way to guarantee a trip to the playoffs that year was to lose only 5 games, or 31% of your games, but for most teams 9 wins would have been sufficient which would give us a generous losing percentage of 43.8% .
In 2014, the worst team was the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers who would not have made the playoffs if it were not for their easy division (although they did win their first playoff game. The worst wild card teams were the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens, and the 11-5 Detroit Lions. A guaranteed trip to the playoff required you go 11-5, or lose only 31% of your games that year, but again there was a range.
So each NFL game is pretty important, but not as much as each college football game. Let’s say the range is usually between losing 30-40% of games, with special situations allowing teams with a .500 winning percentage into the playoffs.
College Basketball, like College Football, is a bit more nuanced, but the champion is determined by a single elimination tournament of 68 teams (4 first round games, and then 32 second round games, 16 third round, and so on). Some bids are automatic (like winning a division in the NFL) so the records don’t matter, and the rest are at-large (like a wild card in the NFL). Let’s look at the last 3 years.
In 2013, the team with the worst record was Liberty, who went 15-20, 11-20 during the regular season, including starting 0-8. Their regular season was basically meaningless until they went undefeated in their conference tournament. They lost a whopping 64.5% of their regular season games and still qualified for the championship tournament. The worst record for an at-large bid went to Villanova, with 13 losses, and a 19-12 regular season record, or 38.7% of games lost. Villanova had a tough schedule, so you’d want to win more than that percentage to guarantee a spot in the tournament, but it’s a baseline.
In 2014, the team with the worst record was Cal Poly, who was 10-19 (lost 65.5%) before going undefeated in their conference tournament and getting an automatic bid with a 13-19 record (lost 59.4%). For the at-large bids, the worst record was NC State with 13 losses, a 19-12 regular season, and a solid conference tournament to end with 21-13 (lost 38.2%). Once again, NC State had a tough schedule, so most other teams would have to win a higher percentage to make the tournament.
In 2015, the team with the worst record was Hampton who was 12-17 (lost 58.6%) before winning their conference tournament. For the at large bids, an incredible 6 teams lost 13 games: NC State, UCLA, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Indiana, and Texas winning anywhere from 18 to 21 games (worst case lost 41.9%).
The range for college basketball is pretty big, but in order to make it to the tournament, a good guideline is to care about the regular season and lose less than 38% of your games (more if you are in a worse conference), or if the regular season is a disaster, give up on your season entirely and try and win your conference tournament. The benefits here are numerous; all the championship contenders make the tournament (i.e. it’s highly unlikely that the best team randomly loses 12 games to inferior teams), but there are also extra paths to make the postseason even if the regular season isn’t going well.
Moreover, the best teams that make the tournament usually lose less than 5 games, and only occasionally teams enter the tournament undefeated. So there is a pretty good distribution of team records in the tournament, and you could argue that the season could be shortened, but only by less than five games (probably less than 3). Any more and we would lose valuable information about which teams are better, since seeding in the tournament is also important.
For Major League Baseball, for the past 3 years, 10 teams make the playoffs, 6 as division winners, and 2 wild cards from each league. In 2013, the teams with the worst records were Cleveland and Tampa in the American League (lost 43.6%) and Cincinnati in the National League (lost 44.4%).
In 2014, the teams with the worst records were Oakland in the American League, and Pittsburgh and San Francisco in the National League which all lost 45.7% of their games.
In 2015, the teams with the worst records were Houston in the American League (lost 46.9%) and the New York Mets in the National League (lost 44.4%).
So in baseball, if you can lose less than 43% of your games or so, you’re probably good to go. This implies baseball has some room to shorten their season, but their are two counter arguments against this that will not apply to the NBA: firstly, most baseball positions are easy to play every day, and secondly, pitching is not something you can do every day so longer seasons are needed to gain information on the large rotation of pitchers a team has.
Now the real problem. In the NBA, 16 teams make it to the playoffs, 8 from each conference. There are 3 divisions in each conference, but it virtually never occurs that a team can win their conference and make the playoffs when they would otherwise not make it at all, and you’ll see why.
In 2013, the worst records were Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference (lost 53.7%) and the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets in the Western Conference (lost 45.1%). As you can see, the West is a much harder conference than the East so in fact the 3 bottom teams in the East would not have had enough wins to qualify for the playoffs in the West (Boston lost 49.4% and Atlanta lost 47.3%), although if simply the best 16 teams made the playoffs only Milwaukee would be replaced.
In 2014, the worst records were Atlanta in the East (lost 53.7%) and Dallas in the West (lost 40.2%). This year, a record 6 of the 8 teams in the East would not have qualified for the playoffs in the West. However, once again, if simply the best 16 teams were taken, only a single team, Atlanta, would have not made the playoffs, and there would only be a marginal change in minimum record needed to qualify for postseason play.
This year, the worst records were Brooklyn in the East (lost 53.7%) and New Orleans in the West (lost 45.1%).
Each year, at least one team lost more than half their games and still made the playoffs. Additionally, every year the best team loses at least 15 games. In fact, the best record of any team ever was the 1996 Chicago Bulls who “still” lost 10 games. Not to take away from their accomplishment, but if the best team ever loses 12% of their games and virtually all teams lose at least 20% of their games, maybe some of these games are meaningless. It’s not like the champions need more room for error; a 7 or 8 seed in either conference has never won the Finals.
Unlike the NFL or college basketball, the NBA playoffs do an excellent job of promoting the best teams towards the higher rounds with extensive 7 game series that are mostly decided by 2 games or more. Therefore, all that is required is that the best teams make the playoffs, something that can be done with fewer games quite easily.
It’s fine to blabber on about winning percentages, but does playing these games actually have any associated costs? Yes: the existence of back-to-back games. Every NBA team will have to play around 15 sets of back-to-back games this year, which means over a third of the games played this season are part of a back-to-back. I think an important part of the regular season of any sport is to figure out who is eligible for the playoffs. However, in the playoffs, there are zero back-to-back games. So why do we test teams so often in the regular season for situations that we don’t use to determine the superior team each season?
Moreover, back-to-backs are randomly interspersed throughout the season for different teams; as a consequence, almost every game that a team plays as the second half of a back-to-back (their second night playing in a row) is not a part of a back-to-back for their opponent, or indeed part of a back-to-back at all. This means the competitions between teams are actually less fair due to the amount of games. And this is not due to some quick of TV scheduling like big-market teams needing to play on certain days and thus having more back-to-backs: The Lakers (big market) have 14 back-to-backs this year, the Heat (mid size market) have 15, and the Jazz (small market) play 17. These back-to-backs need to be eliminated and the best way of doing so is to the reduce the amount of games by 15 or so.
So let’s recap: the NBA has the lowest postseason barrier of any sports listed here, their top teams are in no danger of missing the playoffs, because their top teams lose 20% of their games many of their games are superfluous for playoff seeding, and NBA teams are forced to play more than a third of their games in back-to-back situations which they are not asked to do in playoff competition. So why do they continue to keep the season at the length it is?
Owners in small market towns like Milwaukee or Sacramento have 1 game a year where popular teams from the other conference visit (like the Cleveland in the East, or the Lakers in the West). These owners do not want to give up their annual allocation of games they know they can sell out. And this is fair, but I have several answers.
One is that with a reduction in games to 68, there’s no reason 58 of the games can’t be home-and-home series with every other team in the league. The other 10 should be flex scheduled for good rivalries (Clipper-Warriors, Lakers-Celtics) and/or matchups for teams of similar records from the previous year (we want more Spurs-Cleveland, not 4 games of Milwaukee-Cleveland).
Another is that each game will matter more, which means better basketball. Players will be less tired, and thus less likely to need a day off, but also less likely to take the day off when more games are rivalry games and each loss hurts more. We already have a situation where teams rest many of their players even if they are not specifically injured just to spare their bodies.
And finally, there’s a holistic view of the league that needs to be accounted for. Sure, this will cause a drop in ticket revenue, but fewer games also means fewer injuries, and a higher likelihood for stars to play in more games overall. The NBA, more than almost any other sports league, is driven by big stars which are vital to having a successful team. Chopping 15 games off of every season would result in most star players having an entire extra 2 seasons of basketball if their career total-games-played remained the same. How can the NBA turn down another 2 seasons of Kobe, or Lebron?
This is a reform that needs to happen, and the sooner, the better.