Human beings are notoriously bad forecasters. We predict, analyze, fret then agonize over the lines that connect cause to effect. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Serendipity leads us out of calamities. We are bad at seeing the disasters in our best-laid plans, or the opportunities that arise in disasters.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that over the next eight weeks, gatherings with more than 50 people be canceled or postponed in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Hours later, ESPN reported the NBA league office and its owners are preparing for a minimum three-month hiatus, while some fear the possibility of the season being canceled.
For staff making an hourly wage, for restaurants (still) operating near arenas, for anyone who can’t afford to play the long game, that would be a disaster. The NBA itself, however, has been around long enough to weather the storm and find the silver lining: surviving short-term disasters often leads to long-term gains.
In the long thread of history, a shortened, postponed or canceled season is nothing. Nobody remembers the Dayton Triangles, who kept playing through the throes of the Spanish flu and World War I and won the 1918 Ohio League, which was a predecessor to the NFL. Legacies get lost and so do seasons. They get shortened, distorted, outright crossed out. The 1994 MLB World Series just flat-out didn’t happen. The 2004-05 NHL season was canceled due to a lockout. The 1998-99 lockout-shortened NBA season introduced the world to the maximum salary and the luxury tax, two pillars of the foundation of today’s NBA.
The NBA hasn’t really been shaken up since the 1980s, when it was on the verge of extinction, before late commissioner David Stern helped turn a budding rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson into the clash of the decade, selling NBA rights to ESPN for $11 million over two years in 1982 before eventually taking his business to Turner and nearly doubling the NBA’s TV revenue. Since then, the game has grown in lock step with television and existed within its realities — four 12-minute quarters littered with stoppages for advertisements and just enough time for a halftime segment — even as the barrage of content has become too much for a generation with shorter attention spans, smaller screens and more options. Who’s to say two 20-minute halves won’t work better?
After all, who could have imagined a professional game without fans in the arena? Now, it’s hard to imagine the season resuming in the absence of that scenario. Hell, according to ESPN, those arenas could be shunned for smaller practice facilities. Cameramen would have to find new angles. Maybe they’d use drones. Even on television, the game would have to be viewed from a different vantage point. Commissioner Adam Silver, according to ESPN, “is encouraging his league to be open to experimental ideas in every area — scheduling format, venues, television — on how to respond to an unprecedented crisis.”
Success bogs down innovation with the phrase that’s killed ideas for decades: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, the coronavirus pandemic broke sports. Saving the season, if it’s even possible, means working with scraps. The usual constraints have been rendered arbitrary. Everything is on the table now. The NBA will have to question things that have long been considered essential to its fabric. Every structure will have to prove why it has to exist.
History, as Spencer Dinwiddie explained in a series of tweets outlining his proposal for a March Madness-style NBA tournament, usually holds the answers.
“The NBA went the opposite direction of college when it was struggling and instituted the merger [of the] ABA [and] NBA,” he tweeted. “They concluded that fans weren’t buying into teams and boring team basketball but had a higher likelihood of buying into a singular, high-flying, drama-filled storylines and that plotted this course.” A long season allowed soap-opera-style arcs — Bird vs. Magic, the singularity of Jordan, the rise and redemption of LeBron James — to play out. “It became clickbaity and star/stat-driven,” he continued. “It just took time for the internet to catch up with them and make the old style of consumption obsolete.”
Dinwiddie also proposed a neutral game site. The NBA has never gone that route, even as fans follow players more than teams. The success of the Las Vegas Summer League, where fans make the pilgrimage from all over America to watch rookies that, for the most part, have not yet become stars, suggests it could be a success.
Since the 1967-68 season, when the league fielded 12 teams, teams have played 82 games. The amount of teams has since doubled and then some — alongside with the amount of games — yet shortening the season has never been a serious consideration, even as injury concerns pile up and alternative entertainment options have never been more abundant.
If the financial shortfalls the NBA is currently incurring — alongside fizzling ratings and a loss of Chinese consumers — continue, the NBA will have to ask a question it’s always dreaded: Why 30 teams? There was a time, when the NBA risked extinction, that expansion had inherent value. Those days are over. Fans of small-market teams may not want to hear this, but losing a couple of franchises probably wouldn’t be as bad for the NBA’s health as it would be for optics.
The best thing that can come out of this is something nobody has thought of yet.
The reality of an altered NBA, whenever it comes back, will force everyone — medical professionals, coaches, players, executives — to reckon with new problems and seek out new solutions. Not every Band-Aid will blossom into a good idea. Some will. This is the NBA’s chance to take a long overdue inventory. “To catch up with the times,” as Dinwiddie put it, “you have to make radical adjustments.”
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