It’s no secret that NBA rests have posed challenges for fans, players and TV networks alike. One of the biggest controversies in professional sports began to escalate toward the end of the 82-game regular season.
After paying as much as $130 to see their favorite NBA stars play, fans have learned with little to no notice that their idols would be on the bench – or not at the games at all. Likewise, players like the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant have decried inequalities in the resting rules, saying they’re “only for a couple of players in the league.” And TV networks that air NBA games have struggled not only to maintain advertisers but also to attract new ones.
But while critics have portrayed the NBA as the primary villain in the resting controversy, perhaps, the organization is also the biggest victim.
For perspective, consider the issue’s history. According to CBS reporter Matt Moore, the conflict started with “grumblings” around March 11. That day, Warriors coach Steve Kerr rested Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson during the team’s matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. At the same time, Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard were also off the court due to injuries and other health problems. Although Durant, Aldridge and Kawhi were excused by most critics, the other players – and, in particular, coach Kerr – weren’t so lucky. NBA writer and analyst Brian Geltzeiler, for example, called the decision to rest the players “an atrocious idea,” “an embarrassment to the league” and “shameful.” Combined with other criticisms, Geltzeiler’s words formed some of the first blows to the NBA’s reputation.
Then, one week later, the Cleveland Cavaliers added fuel to the critics’ fire. In a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue rested his “Big Three”: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Fans were shocked to find out the the team’s star players wouldn’t be on the court, chanting, “We want LeBron!” while James sat on the bench. And Clippers coach Doc Rivers even chimed in, saying, “There is a fan base that probably bought tickets tonight to see LeBron James play for the first time. They didn’t get a chance to see that, and that’s not cool.”
But, again, the harshest words came away from the matchup. Retired basketball player Karl Malone told ESPN’s Sage Steele: “If you don’t have at least 10 years’ experience, get your a** playing. It’s not work; it’s called playing. Besides, tell our underpaid service members and police and first responders to rest. D*****, they can’t.”
Aside from public backlash, however, the NBA suffered in other ways, too. Despite earning a 2.1 overnight rating on a Sunday afternoon matchup in 2016, the Cavs and Clippers netted only a 1.1 on ABC’s “NBA Saturday Primetime” this year. Though the Saturday presentation should have boosted ratings, Sports Media Watch suspected early that this year’s figure was “almost certainly the lowest NBA overnight ever on a broadcast network.” A few days later, updated data supported that hunch: The game scored only a 1.0 final rating, tying the two lowest-rated NBA matchups in broadcast TV history.
But how does that affect the NBA overall? Because the NBA is a business, first and foremost. Bringing in almost $5 billion a season, the NBA ranks third in the top American professional sports leagues by revenue, behind only the NFL ($13 billion) and MLB ($9.5 billion). During the 2013-2014 season, gate receipts contributed about 28 percent of the NBA’s total revenue, meaning that television deals formed a large portion of the remaining 72 percent. But when ratings are low, what incentive do networks have to renew their contracts with NBA teams? The answer: not much.
Although Disney (ABC and ESPN) and Time Warner (TNT) signed contracts with the NBA last year to air games through the 2024-2025 season, there’s no guarantee that they’ll renew their agreements. As the BallnRoll editorial staff puts it: “TNT is not planning on shelling out billions to see James and Steph Curry sit on a Saturday night broadcast.” And who could blame it? At $24 billion, the current contract is too expensive for the network not to reap mutual benefits.
So what’s the solution? Simply avoiding or banning rests won’t work. Before the Houston Rockets’ March 26 matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, coach Mike D’Antoni had said, “We don’t rest. We don’t do that.” During the game, D’Antoni kept his word, yet the matchup still yielded only a 0.9 final rating, replacing the Cavalier-Clippers’ 1.0 record low a week earlier. What’s more, as ESPN staff writer Tom Haberstroh explains: “[T]he economics make clear that some games, played by some players, are many times more important than others to the league’s bottom line. The trick is to get the best players in uniform and at their best for the nationally televised games that pay the bills” (emphasis added). Since the rests started as a way to refresh players in a demanding 82-game season, certainly, eliminating them won’t serve that goal. (For proof, consider some of the research the NBA has collected and analyzed on the relationship between fatigue and injuries.)
However, perhaps, the NBA could change the way it handles rests. League commissioner Adam Silver has already taken the first steps by meeting with NBA owners, reducing the number of back-to-back games in next year’s season and imposing penalties for noncompliance with player availability regulations. But he has also said that “there should be a strong preference for resting players at home,” a suggestion that will continue to cut off fans, teammates and TV networks. Since the NBA depends on these groups’ interest and support for its financial success, players need to be at the games, signing autographs, participating in interviews and promoting the game-day experience. After a tough regular season weighed down by controversy, it’s the only way to turn the NBA from a villain and victim into a hero again.