Refreshingly, the NBA playoffs so far have escaped the 75-point clutch-and-grab purgatory of the past decade. Still, according the Nielsen data reported on Zapt2it, 3.3 million households watched the NBA playoffs on Sunday afternoon. That’s about 2 million fewer than watched the NASCAR race Sunday and slightly less than viewership for WWE Smackdown!. To be fair, these events aired in primetime, but the NBA lost out in direct competition with the the Shell Houston Open. Now that’s a smackdown! In a broader perspective, CBS’s 11-year deal pays the NCAA about $550 million per year just for the tournament while the NBA receives only $750 million per year for the regular season and playoffs combined.
The interest in the NCAA tournament presents an interesting comparison with the NBA. Although I’m not a big fan of college basketball — the hyper-physical play reflects the 90s trend in the pro game, many coaches are obnoxious, officiating is inconsistent at best and atrocious at worst, and then there is Billy Packer (don’t get me started) — I find the tournament compelling, especially the first two rounds. The “lose and you’re out” format makes every game meaningful. Very few teams show up poorly motivated, and if they do, they often pay. Aside from some of the 1-16 and 2-15 seed matchups, the single-game format makes the outcome somewhat uncertain and enhances the chances for upsets. I find myself engrossed in games in which I had no direct rooting interest and emotionally involved with teams like Vermont and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The longer a series is, the more that the average performance level of the two teams influences the outcome while variation in performance in any one game influences the outcome less. In this respect, the NBA’s “best of 7” format places a premium on the “best team” winning much more heavily than on the drama. Interest in the NCAA tournament seems to support the idea that fans prefer a heavier weighting on drama. Nobody I know participates in NBA playoff picking pools, while March is filled with them for the NCAA. Rather than moving in the direction of promoting more drama, the NBA has lengthened even the first round series to the “best of 7” format in recent years.
Given that the NBA is not currently setting the TV market on fire, why not experiment for three or for seasons with a shorter playoff format that makes each game more meaningful and increases the drama. If a “lose and you’re out” system is too extreme for the league, then a “best of 3” format until the finals with a “best of 5” finals would go a long way. The “best of 3” series could be run in a week’s time. Coupling shorter series with a slightly shorter season would also permit the league to start the playoffs right on the heels of the NCAA tournament (when basketball interest is high) and run the finals in early May. By June, I’m much more interested in baseball, BBQ, and my golf swing than I am basketball.