Kawhi Leonard’s decision to sit out the Los Angeles Clippers’ October 30th game against Utah has sparked a fierce debate about the length of the NBA regular season, player health and wellness and the responsibilities teams and players have to their media partners and fans. No one disputes that Leonard has various physical issues (including a knee ailment), but widespread usage of ‘load management’ as a strategy (see: sitting players out of regular season games to ensure ‘fresh legs’ for the playoffs) has become problematic for the league. As many have asked, if coaches and players are going to deliver the message that the regular season does not matter, why would the fans believe otherwise?
Howie Long-Short: The concept of ‘load management’ exists in the NBA and not in other pro sports because of “the tremendous amount of clout that the players hold within the league.” Lee Berke (CEO of LHB Sports & Entertainment) explained that “unlike in the NFL, NBA players are not running around in helmets that obscure their faces and there aren’t twenty-two of them on the field at any given time; there are just ten players on the court, the players are very exposed and they leverage that exposure to drive their individual brands” (which ultimately provides them with the clout held).
‘Load management’ is an issue because of the balancing act that pro sports has become. While the coaches and players are “gunning for the playoffs [and thus want to preserve their stars], team owners still want to grow revenues (which requires selling tickets to regular season games) and the league still needs to appease its fans and broadcast partners (which understandably want the stars to play in every game).”
Admittedly, Berke doesn’t have the solution. “The league can push the players to play more often or it could downsize regular season expectations, so that the fans understand that not every player will be at every game, but there’s only so much that can be done; the league is dealing with rock stars.” Of course, when a rock star is unable to fulfill a scheduled tour date, the fans are reimbursed for tickets. Former NFL wide receiver (turned media personality) Nate Burleson said it perfectly, “[athletes] get paid millions and millions of dollars to play a game, at the very least show up and give the people what they want…”
It’s fair to suggest that if NBA players aren’t capable of playing eighty-two games, perhaps there are too many nights on the schedule. But there are two problems with cutting down on the number of regular season games. The first is revenue driven. “Are the players going to take a cut in salary? Are the owners going to take a cut in media rights?” Berke said he doesn’t see either of those things happening. The second issue is a practical matter. Lightening the work load “doesn’t guarantee that the star players will play all the games.”
Berke believes eighty-two games is still the right number for the NBA. “Fans and media partners alike are generally getting the experience that they want, even if there are some individual games that are a problem.” The league could eliminate some games and hope that the value on a per game basis goes up, but “nobody is looking to take a step back [in terms of revenues].”
The NBA could also consider expanding beyond thirty teams to offset any revenue lost on a per-game basis. “[Expansion] would add more content and give the league more games to sell.” Berke rattled off Seattle, Mexico City, Vancouver, Nashville, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Louisville as markets that would be capable of supporting a team.
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