NEW YORK • The most frequently posed query in National Basketball Association (NBA) circles over the past weeks – When do you think next season will start? – had also been one of the hardest to answer.
Even commissioner Adam Silver, at a news conference late last month before Game 1 of the Finals, told reporters it was too soon for him to provide details in response “to most of your questions” about the 2020-21 season.
That all changed last Friday after a board of governors meeting. Numerous team owners supported the league’s new plan to push for a Dec 22 start date – just 10 weeks after the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship win over the Miami Heat.
The league office cannot unilaterally impose its preferred timetable upon players, but negotiations are under way before the deadline today to modify the current labour agreement.
Expectations are that the sides will strike a deal on the terms for next season, such as setting the salary cap and luxury tax figures and an overhauled calendar with Dec 22 as opening night.
These are the three main reasons a December start has suddenly become the target.
1. THIS IS WHAT THE LEAGUE’S TELEVISION PARTNERS WANT
Throughout the NBA’s three-month stay at Walt Disney World, all signs pointed to the 2020-21 season beginning in the new year. League insiders frequently cited mid-January as the earliest.
Playing the long game, it was often suggested, would enhance the chances of fan attendance for at least a part of the regular season.
But since the season ended, daunting projections about the spread of the coronavirus in winter have led to pessimism about admitting even small crowds any time soon.
Teams thus began to whisper last week that momentum was building to start the new season around Dec 25 to preserve the ability to broadcast five games on Christmas Day.
Disney, which owns ESPN, badly wants to continue that Christmas tradition and have five games to televise on either ABC or ESPN.
Turner, the NBA’s other primary broadcast partner, would get its traditional opening night double-header on a Tuesday if the union agrees to the Dec 22 proposal.
The league, for its part, has informed the union that it projects a difference of US$500 million (S$682.6 million) in revenue if it can start the season in December rather than mid-January.
2. GIVING FANS (AND PLAYERS) THEIR SUMMERS BACK
Starting the new season before Christmas would probably enable NBA players to participate in the Tokyo Olympics in July next year.
The league wants to make that happen, if possible, which would also prevent high-profile NBA play-off games from clashing with the Summer Games.
But the bigger motivation for preventing the play-offs from straying too far into July is to avoid playing throughout the summer for a second successive season, while also restoring free agency as the centrepiece of the summer calendar.
Another inescapable truth: Players want their summers back, too, especially after the demands of the bubble, with the Lakers and the Heat forced to spend nearly 100 days on an isolated campus.
3. SETS NBA UP FOR RETURN TO NORMALCY BY 2021-22
It is a given that the 2020-21 season cannot possibly proceed as smoothly as bubble life did. Even if the arenas are essentially empty, teams are determined to play in their home markets. Players, coaches and team staff living at home and travelling would invite coronavirus-related risks.But making sure the 2020-21 season ends in July at the latest would increase the NBA’s readiness for a traditional October-to-June run in 2021-22, which appears to be its next real opportunity to regain access to the crowds, sponsors and ancillary arena income.