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The NBA: Where Hardly Any Game Matters

2007 November 1
by Brian Goff

The NBA rolled out its 2007-08 product this week with its typical promotion. Although continuing to do well in many markets from a live gate standpoint , the league has really faltered in trying to grow, or even keep, its television audiences (July ’07 post). One criticism often levied at the NBA is that with an 82 game regular season including weeks with 3 games and back-back road game nights, individual games just don’t matter enough.

During the playoffs last year, it struck me how little individual NBA playoff games mattered from if based on the nearness of elimination or advancement. Why watch the first 4 games of a seven game series? Why not let it play out to five or six games and then pay attention? Dennis Wilson collected some figures for playoffs from 1990-2007 that put some substance to this feeling:

  • Only 30% of playoff games were “closeout” games where a team could win or lose the series
  • Only 25% involved games where both teams were 2 or fewer wins away from winning the series
  • Only 17% of 7-game first round series and NBA finals met the 2 or fewer wins from winning situation

MLB and NHL numbers are similar. In contrast, every NFL playoff game meets these two conditions as does every one of the 63 games in the NCAA tournament –probably the most relevant contrast.

Should the NBA adopt a lose and you’re out playoff format just like the NCAA? That’s seems like too big of a step but more modest moves (see May ’05 suggestions) might help build more interest. For example, a 2 out of 3 format means that all games meet the 2 or fewer wins from winning criterion. In the meantime, truth-in-advertising might dictate my title as NBA’s new banner.

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