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Better Economics, Less Traveling, Could Rekindle NBA Love: View

December 12, 2011

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- At the risk of going against the grain, let us celebrate the National Basketball Association.

Really.

After a tiresome work outage (which followed several tiresome seasons), teams open training camps today to prepare for a lockout-shortened season. So why be optimistic about the wayward American custodian of a great global sport?

First, the league is starting to make more economic sense. Under a new labor deal struck Nov. 26, the share of basketball- related income given to players will be reduced from 57 percent to 51.2 percent during the 2011-2012 season. (It will then vary depending on how revenue lines up with projections.)

NBA players will remain on average the highest paid athletes in the world, and owners will save about $3 billion over 10 years if everyone adheres to the agreement for the full period. Last year, according to NBA Commissioner David Stern, teams collectively lost $300 million on leaguewide revenue of $4.3 billion.

New rules increasing revenue sharing, mandating a more punitive luxury-tax system for teams that overspend, rationalizing salary-cap and trade regulations (to some extent), and shortening players’ contracts may help some smaller-market teams compete and lead to greater parity.

Quality of Play

Better economics, in turn, should induce ownership and the league to focus more on the quality of play. There’s some evidence this will happen. The league will introduce a few smart rule changes this year to speed up games, and plans to better enforce violations (like traveling) and certain types of fouls (like the soul-killing arm-locking that has come to dominate life under the basket).

And the lockout has led to a shorter and more compressed season. Teams will play 66 games between Christmas and the end of April, often back-to-back and sometimes over three consecutive nights. The excitement that generates should be all the league needs to see the logic of, say, a 70-game schedule.

The traditional 82-game season, which stretched from October to June, seemed Mahabharata-esque. Early matchups -- that is, pretty much anything played before the Super Bowl -- felt like desultory pickup games for torpid giants.

Perhaps most critically, the lockout also showed that many sports fans didn’t particularly miss the NBA. In the public mind, whether fair or not, the quality of play has degenerated over the years. At the same time, player greed and league indifference to the unhealthy consolidation of skill -- as exemplified by LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach -- had reached perverse levels.

The NBA has to know that Americans can live without it, which is why it should do more to reform. It should take a few lessons from the ever-popular college game, such as allowing fewer fouls per player or letting teams use more creative defenses.

Neither change is likely. But with an improved (though imperfect) economic model, and a clearer sense of its own mortality, here’s hoping the NBA can find its way back to relevance, excitement and, perhaps, joy.

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, David Shipley

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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