Buried in a long ESPN interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver last Wednesday was a suggestion that when basketball first returns from its coronavirus hiatus, it could look kinda different:
He emphasized that Americans and their leaders should take seriously “the impact on the national psyche of no sports programming on television.” He then suggested the possibility that a group of players could compete in a tournament to raise money. Or they could simply compete “for the collective good of the people.” Such a tournament might not necessarily involve five-on-five (the BIG 3 has made three-on-three work with retired NBA stars; and the NBA Jam video game was popular with two-on-two). Silver clarified that this third model is only a concept at this stage. However, it would likely involve using a subset of players who are isolated and compete against each other in tightly controlled conditions.
On the one hand, this makes a kind of sense: If a regular slate of NBA games isn’t possible, even in front of empty seats, then sure, maybe let’s do a real life version of NBA Jam (with the sound effects, one hopes) as a stopgap. The bit about “isolated” players being safe to play against each other sounds somewhat like Silver doesn’t understand how virus transmission works — would they test everyone entering the basketball court/TV studio, then wait around for the results to come back? — but it’s not crazy.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to see this as Silver angling to be the first to grab a desperately sports-hungry TV audience that is currently surviving entirely on repeats of old games now that Australian rules football has become the final sport to shut down. “One high-ranking team executive” told the Washington Post that losses if the entire season and postseason were canceled could reach $1.2 billion, though the league would recoup a bunch of that by automatic reductions in the salary cap (and hence player salaries) next year, as well as possibly cutting players’ pay for this season via the “force majeure” clause in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The NBA still gets TV rights payments even if the season is canceled, but that doesn’t mean the league wouldn’t want to work out some way of getting back on the air in some form, either to keep its media partners happy or to negotiate a cut of what would surely be huge audiences for NBA Jam: Real People Edition.
How likely is any of this to happen? Not very! But it is worth keeping in mind that even as sports leagues work to do their part to flatten the curve and bring this crisis to an end sooner than later — and, you know, prevent 15% of everybody’s grandmothers from dying — they’re also hard at work angling not just to stanch their financial bleeding, but to figure out how to build a new revenue model for a coronavirus world. As that will almost certainly involve all of us as cable subscribers, ticket buyers, and taxpayers, it’s worth keeping a close eye on.