Dear Commissioner Adam Silver,
Congratulations on the new job- it should continue to be one of the most important and rewarding jobs in the entire sports world for your entire tenure. While your predecessor did some remarkable work expanding the reach of the NBA, he also left some pivotal challenges for the league to address in the near term. Having heard good buzz on your willingness to listen to ideas and input I wanted to contribute to the conversation as it begins.
Instead of specific proposals, I wanted to focus on larger concepts that should be at the forefront of this new era.
Believe in your product and allow it to sell itself
As a child, I inhaled just about everything I could about sports, including teaching myself to read on the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Since my parents were both uninterested in basketball at the time, it went on the back burner behind baseball, football and hockey. I followed Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and the NCAA Tournament every year, but it was a casual interest at best due to lack of exposure and the Golden Warriors mostly being terrible.
That changed when I started attending UCLA. Being able to see high-level athletes play in person immediately began to shift my sports world and within two years it became my favorite sport and I started covering the NBA with a press credential while attending law school just a few years after that. My story is far too common for a sport this great- I have adult sports fan friends coming to me all the time talking about how they finally got into the NBA as adults and wondered why they had spent so much time with baseball and/or college hoops. Basketball’s collaborative spirit and fluid athletes bridge a few of the key gaps in sports and have an experience to offer in person and on television that the other leagues would have trouble matching if done correctly.
As the NFL chooses to react to their player safety problems by fundamentally changing the sport from what we all originally connected with, now is the time for the NBA to move aggressively and intelligently into the sports mainstream. The proper lens to view this attitude change through is that of a general sports fan- someone who likes sports and watches ESPN, maybe just for the highlights. The NBA has been marginalized in that world because the league and its partners have been satisfied with current revenues instead of focusing on saturation and building the brand. Think about how rarely NBA games are on the single digit networks- only ABC ever has games and they basically only start after the Super Bowl other than Christmas. Even then, network games are largely limited to weekends during the day (mornings on the West Coast). If they had not stupidly moved Monday Night Football to cable, the NFL would have games on all four big networks on what looks to be three days a week most of the season after the CBS Thursday expansion including three different time slots on Sundays. A sport that only plays a total of 267 games per full season (regular season + playoffs) lives everywhere in the networks that permeate American culture while professional basketball languishes on the periphery even behind baseball.
If the current television partners will not expand their coverage on the single digit networks, find better ones. Even the mere possibility of not expanding the bidding process to entities outside the current group (most notably Fox, CBS, and NBC) boggles my mind. Plus, it functionally eliminates hearing John Tesh’s Roundball Rock on television which is an ongoing travesty. The big networks are falling all over themselves to plug in content on Friday nights – why not get those eyeballs on an NBA Game of the Week even if the payout is low? Adding to the basic cable lineup would help as well and there are networks at various points on the dial that would love to provide more live sports content.
On top of all that, remember that there are stars in the making all around the league. It should not have taken three years to get Kevin Durant on the biggest stages and a playoff run to allow sports fans outside the Bay Area to see the electricity of Stephen Curry and the Oracle Arena crowd. We have two months of the season left and only seven teams will appear in the 11 remaining ABC regular season games. Again, if your current partners do not have the faith in the product to put it at the forefront, find some that will. Live sports will continue to rule television since they are DVR-proof and advertisers love that.
Seek out input on ways to improve the product and fan experience
The NBA and basketball as a whole have an absolutely incredible group of hardcore fans. Places like Twitter, Reddit, and a multitude of sites around the internet have intelligent and talented individuals who care and think about this stuff maybe a little too much. Heck, look at the research papers for the Sloan Conference this year- four of the eight selected papers are on basketball and last year had a huge NBA presence as well. When I announced that I was going to do a podcast with ideas of ways to fix the draft, the response in the NBA media community was overwhelming and I continue to get ideas on that and the playoff system.
While David Stern has many strong qualities, openness to new and innovative ideas does not appear on the list. The league should take the change at the top as the impetus for a radical and novel approach to its community by creating a place for fans of all stripes to submit and evaluate ideas of ways to make the NBA better. After all, Henry Abbott and TrueHoop should not have to take the lead on #HoopIdea improvements though they can and must be part of the conversation. My mantra would be: We may not agree with many ideas and may not enact any of them but we want to hear everything. On top of that, I would reward any concepts from that space that become part of the NBA rules through rewards like tickets or experiences for those eligible. Building a prominent space within the league umbrella for these opinions would provide valuable information and could build an excellent community for basketball fans around the world.
Be open to big changes on various CBA and system issues
I have hit some of the immense amount of potential fixes to the lottery system on the podcast two weeks ago and know of myriad other proposals out there with large and small improvements. The playoff discussion has more limited variance since the league is closer to an optimal result. Past those, topics like eliminating individual maximum salaries, allowing a portion of players with long tenures with one team to not count against the cap, and tweaking the extension rules are all worthy of consideration during the next round of negotiations.
Fix the age limit by going in the opposite direction of where you appear to be leaning
Look at today’s NBA. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Kevin Durant all played one year or less in college. Would the league or any of them individually be better off with shifting those years to colleges? I have yet to see research that shows the NCAA and their schools are any better at developing quality NBA players (or “leaders” as you emphasized in your interview with Sam Amick) and that makes total sense considering their coaches have the goal of winning games rather than maximizing their long term potential and the rules between the two leagues are different enough to potentially generate habits that could be detrimental to their professional careers.
I sincerely hope you also reject the specious argument that bringing in more recognizable players due to college exposure helps ticket sales in any meaningful manner. Winning means far more – players like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant did more to inspire their local fans after they joined the NBA than before and super famous collegians like JJ Redick and Jimmer Fredette did not exactly translate that into league revenue.
On top of all that, college basketball serves as a competitor to your league, directly undercutting both your exposure and revenue through their TV deals. Heck, college basketball gets more games on the Big Three networks than the NBA if you include March Madness. When you have another league that lowers your revenue and potentially provides you with a weaker output and less years of great talent, the answer cannot be to give them more of your players. In fact, moving in the opposite direction and taking a more active role in developing elite younger athletes would be in the NBA’s best interest.
Improve NBA League Pass
As a long-time subscriber to League Pass and writer of a Non-National Games of the Week column, the flaws of the current system are readily apparent. Only one game at a time airs in high definition and non-Direc TV subscribers do not have the ability to choose which feed to watch most of the time. In fact, I nearly broke things when I found out that Direc TV’s product had so much of what the other providers lacked.
Expanding the online and mobile device support would be appreciated as well and doing some more innovative steps with Summer League and the D-League could yield some interesting results. In any case, increasing the quality of League Pass content in conjunction with an expanded television deal would substantially increase the visibility and repeat business of casual and hardcore fans alike and likely bring new ones into the fold.
Figure out an ahead of the curve policy on Performance Enhancing Drugs and marijuana
Despite covering the league for almost five years, I still do not have any sort of handle on the size and scope of PED use among NBA players. The league can avoid some of the black eyes presently being suffered by their competitors by figuring out a logical path as a part of the next CBA negotiations. Mark Cuban has been a good agitator on the subject and utilizing the multitude of intelligent people interested in the matter could yield some smart ideas on HGH and everything else.
On the same note, a more open policy on marijuana needs to be a part of the conversation as the optics of the issue continue to change nationally and regionally. After all, one team already plays in a state where it is legal and that number could grow quickly in the very near future. One potential option would be to put the question in the hands of the teams themselves, allowing them to set policies on punishment. That kind of system would allow for the market to resolve the issue since teams more tolerant of the use would have a different pool of available talent and could see the results over time.
In both cases, a proactive and open process will greatly help the NBA avoid the various traps that their competitors continue to stumble into.
Create a new, more favorable international tournament to work alongside the Olympics
Yet again, Mark Cuban’s innovative spirit has helped bring this flaw to the surface. While the Olympics are a wonderful celebration of sport, embracing it for their athletes has put the NBA in a precarious position with substantially less financial upside and lots of risk for their teams and athletes. Moving to a parallel system outside the Olympics would give the league greater control over the content and a more fair result for the players along with boatloads of revenue. The “World Cup of Basketball” could even be played on or around the Summer Games every four years to capitalize on the attention and enthusiasm while also allowing those who want to participate in either endeavor to train together under the same umbrella. It would increase the visibility of the sport and produce some incredibly high quality basketball.
All of these concepts really boil down to embracing the big conversations and all voices that want to contribute. The foundation has been laid but the choices made now will have a huge impact on the long-term trajectory of the league and sport as a whole. We have a sport too great to accept anything less than end to end excellence.
Daniel.Leroux@realgm.com and https://twitter.com/DannyLeroux