Christmas is cancelled, at least as far as basketball is concerned. That’s the latest word coming from the NBA rumour machine, with knowledgeable sports scribe John Hollinger claiming that the season will finally get underway on Martin Luther King day, which is January 18th.
Many Toronto Raptors fans will likely agree that if you take away the Christmas games, you might as well take away Christmas. But the January 18th start is also being touted by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports and is believed to be the preferred choice of several influential players in the league. However, scratch below the surface and you will see that there are other influences at play here. Hang tight, we could still see some NBA action in the closing weeks of December.
Six weeks to go?
ESPN cited unnamed sources within the NBA as claiming the league is going all out to get the action underway before Christmas. They speak of a 72-game regular season commencing on December 22nd, following a three week training camp. If the league goes down this road, it will effectively be abandoning the idea of holding fire until fans can safely enter the arena, and opening encounters would almost certainly take place in bubbles or entirely behind closed doors.
On the face of it, that sounds like a bad idea from a commercial perspective. However, pro sport revenue flows from many sources. Think about our opening words in this article – delaying the start of the season would be like cancelling Christmas, and there are dollar reasons the NBA wants to avoid that. These include factors relating to streaming revenue from those holiday audiences and also from the sports betting community.
Here in Canada, it’s sometimes difficult to see what all the fuss is about over sports betting in the US. After all, both sports books and casino games have been thoroughly enjoyed in Canada for many years, thanks to a mature licensing system under the Kahnawake Gaming Commission. Placing a dollar or two on the outcome of a game adds to the engagement factor, and gives you all the more reason to celebrate a win. That’s an attitude that is gradually permeating the US, as state by state, legislation is introduced to allow sports fans to place a wager, and more people do so during the holiday season than at any other time.
Starting the season on December 22nd makes sense for all sorts of reasons, but it is undoubtedly ambitious. It means an off-season of just six weeks, during which there would be plenty to get done. The season would incorporate a two-week break for all at the mid-point and would allow the 2021-2022 season to commence as normal.
Start from the end and work backwards
This notion of planning ahead so that future seasons are not similarly disrupted makes plenty of sense. If the recent bubble’s finals ratings have shown us anything, it is that pushing the NBA Finals back into fall is not a good solution. It’s important that they take place in June, the month where they belong, so several respected NBA pundits, including Michael Rosenberg and Jeremy Woo, have suggested starting at that end point and working back.
To make that work, starting in December is the only practical choice. For sure, it will represent a challenge for the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, but the rest of the league is unlikely to protest.
A little more patience?
We’ve all had to learn plenty about patience in recent months. The voices in the NBA that are advocating for the January 18th starting point, because a rushed start in December just means more compromises. Mark Bechtel of Sports Illustrated even suggested waiting till the beginning of February to start the season. Clearly, the downside to this is that the opening round of games would be entirely overshadowed by the Super Bowl.
This, then, brings us back to starting on Martin Luther King day. If the biggest drawback to this is a lack of Christmas games, Bechtel suggests a special pre-season TV event, a little like All Star Weekend, but fitted into one day and broadcast on 25 December.
There are pros and cons to each of these approaches. Time is ticking, and we will surely learn the definitive plan over the next week or two. For everyone involved in and around the Raptors organization, players, fans and media alike, the waiting can’t end soon enough.