Why the NBA Regular Season does matter
The primary allure and unique feature of sports is the competitiveness aspect, namely uncertainty in the outcome of a matchup and designed parity across a league. For instance, a study analyzing Monday Night Football games found that TV ratings are primarily determined by a quality match-up between winning teams, a high level of uncertainty of outcome, and high-scoring (Paul and Weinbach 2007). The same finding is true in College Football BCS games, where ratings increase systematically throughout a contest when the outcome of that contest becomes more uncertain (Salaga and Tainsky 2013).
Yet, one of the important distinctions between the NBA and most other professional leagues (potentially excluding European soccer) is the starpower of the players, and how their popularity drives viewership independent of the competitiveness or of the quality of the two teams in a game. In fact, my independent research finds that the competitiveness of a single matchup (as measured by the point spread) isn’t a significant predictor of ticket prices or TV ratings in regular season NBA games.
While this isn’t a one-to-one comparison with the broader metric of how good each team is (as measured by their W-L record or playoff probability), which our research shows to be a strong influencer in ticket prices (and less so in ratings), it is an indicator that there are other important factors driving demand for the NBA regular season product.
On the other hand, popularity of players in a matchup is a huge driver of ticket prices and ratings. In fact, it can be even more important than the combined quality of the two teams playing! Have you ever gone to a game and seen Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant in person? How about LeBron James or Steph Curry? These are the most talented, most skilled, most explosive athletes this planet has ever seen, and their presence alone is worth the price of admission. There is a “superstar” effect that transcends the competitiveness of a game, how good the two teams playing are, and the market size of each team, among other factors, which makes the NBA a uniquely different product than hockey, baseball, and even football.
Figure 1. Ticket Price and TV Ratings Impacts for All NBA Players (Ranked by # of Fan All-Star Votes)
Now, the new age of load management has thrown a sizable wrench into this construct. There is a case to be made that the regular season is indeed too long if the top stars are going to take nights off (or choose not to play with minor injuries that players used to play through), which is a shared sentiment among some writers. Under these conditions, the product no longer has the appeal it’s designed to produce, and fans paying hard-earned money or advertisers expecting a certain number of viewing households are now experiencing reduced value.
These factors may suggest benefits of a slightly shorter regular season (which the NBA has already suggested) to avoid back-to-backs and space out games a bit. This way, expectations about the quality of the product can be better met for the several important stakeholders involved.
The most important takeaway is this: fans pay for the game-day experience. Who could possibly get tired of watching LeBron James or Stephen Curry play, no matter how good the other team, no matter how competitive the game, and no matter how the game may or may not impact playoff probability? More than any other professional sport, this is what makes the NBA different. The players are on center-stage, their athleticism on full display. More specifically, there are only 5 players on the court at a time, and each is perfectly visible (unlike football or hockey).
The narrative needs to be changed, and all of the factors considered. The regular season does matter to a whole lot of people that can’t afford to go to playoff games, or only get a chance to go to one or two games a year (and even that comes with a very high cost). The more chances we have to do that, the more reasonable are ticket prices and the more accessible the stars.
A longer regular season also makes sense for the stars themselves! Player salaries hinge on these revenues, and a much shorter schedule is going to have significant financial impacts. Relatedly, a significantly shorter schedule would reduce the window in which players receive national attention. With the current setup, players get to brand themselves for 9-10 months out of the year, something that doesn’t happen in other professional sports.
If you’re feeling interested in a deeper dive into the economics of superstar players in the NBA, check out our independent academic working paper that was featured at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Steph and LeBron fans will understand.