NBA considers reenacting old video games to reclaim TV audience

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.

12 comments on “NBA considers reenacting old video games to reclaim TV audience

  1. The NBA would be the “easiest” league to have resume behind closed doors (fewer players per team etc).

    However, the players would have to agree to essentially full quarantine while the season finishes and be monitored (somehow) to ensure compliance. Players and coaches and their families would all have to agree to it… or be isolated from their families for the remainder of the season.

    Would they agree to either?

      • I have no idea of whether it would work, but ESPN mentioned that they could borrow the approach of the Chinese Basketball Association of relocating its teams to a low-exposure city, testing, quarantining them, and then isolating them as they resume practice and games. I would suspect that the logistics of finding a city with enough hotels, hs/cc gyms to allow for teams to practice would be a heavy lift. Then, they would also have to test and quarantine broadcasters, journalists, refs, scoreboard operators, floor moppers, athletic trainers, camera men, etc for wherever they choose to play in case they ruin the bubble. Even if the logistics could be worked out, they could not even try to put it into practice until the testing in the country reaches a point where testing 1000+ seemingly healthy people does not come off as a complete affront to those who have symptoms and cannot.

        • I doubt it would be too hard to find a place to do it. If it’s all on TV you could find some island resort, buy out all the rooms, setup the court in a ball room or something similar.. Maybe something like Atlantis in the Bahamas, Sea Island in Georgia, or something similar.

      • “and live at the arenas?”

        No. Quarantine does not require them to stay at the arenas. But they would have to travel only to and from secure and quarantined locations and in similarly secured vehicles.

        That’s why I asked the question. Would they? It would be a tremendous imposition. Then again, they will be compensated.

        On the plus side, it would mean that they could expect full pay (this year and likely higher salary percentages next year… if there is a next year…).

        If Silver (and the owners) weren’t actually considering some option along these lines, it wouldn’t have been discussed in the interview.

        I have no idea if many (or any) players would think it worthwhile. But given the way professional athletes tend to spend, I would imagine some will need the money.

  2. I am a huge sports fan ( baseball, hockey, football and golf). But let’s be honest, very few people care about repeats of old basketball games ( even as a Yankee fan I am not watching 20 year old Yankee games on YES). The NBA like everyone else, should bite the bullet, and wait until it is back to normal ( even if it is October).

    • Would you watch live two-on-two basketball?

      (I know the answer for myself. Yesterday I watched a marble race.)

      • Neil: I would prefer the Islanders and Yankees, but there are Plenty of movies to catch up with.

      • Withdrawal was tough 1st week of sip, shelter in place. Much better the 2nd week.

        I’ve keep the television off, sunny spot next to an open window, it’s springtime, and spend the day with a good read (we oldsters call it a “book”). I’ve got a dog-eared copy of “Field of Schemes” by Joanna Cagan I’d be glad to lend you.

    • FWIW, being ‘coronastorm-stayed’, I am watching MLB classics on MLB network. Somewhat less interested in the “modern classics” like the 2015 or 2016 world series… and definitely not interested in watching a few highlights mixed in with studio interviews with aging players. However, if I get a chance to watch classic games from the 1970s or 1980s, I will definitely do it.

      It may be a small percentage of people, but it’s not zero.

      • I just hope there will be a baseball season. With New York and LA being so hard hit, and the Yankees and Dodgers being two of the most important franchises (not to mention the Mets & Angels), you have to wonder if there will be a season?

        • By June or July, every MLB city will have been “hard hit,” so I don’t think what to do about specific teams will be the issue.

          There’s a decent likelihood that cities and states will be able to start coming off lockdown by late spring, given the stats we’re seeing out of places like Italy, where the curve is finally beginning to flatten. Whether the whole U.S. will be able to come off lockdown at the same time, and whether the virus will stay at a low boil for long enough to get through spring training and restart a season — even in front of empty stadiums — is another question.