Thursday December 7, 2023

NBA Play-In Tourney Sparks Drama On, Off Court

  • Big NBA stars are objecting to the new play-in tournament, but the league may be swayed by the revenue it brings.
  • The tournament is not guaranteed to be part of league rules past this season.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports/Design: Alex Brooks
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The NBA is expanding its playoff field, and while it’ll likely make for great TV ratings, it’s anything but a hit with some of its biggest stars. 

“Whoever came up with that s*** needs to be fired,” said LeBron James, referring to the league’s play-in tournament, which is in its second year. His fifth-seed Lakers could end up in the tournament.

Instead of the top eight teams in each conference making the playoffs, only six are guaranteed a spot. The next four play a series of single-elimination games for the final two seeds.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the change “an enormous mistake.”

However, after the 2020 playoffs averaged 3.04 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, TNT, and NBA TV — down 37% from 2019 — it’s clear why a play-in is attractive to the NBA. It creates more games, more possible marquee matchups and that should, in turn, create better ratings.

“I do see this as something we would embrace going forward,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

The play-in tourney kicks off May 18, capping off a year where the league has tried to recover from a 2019-20 season that saw revenue drop 10% to $8.3 billion, per ESPN.

The NBA isn’t the only league adding more action to its schedule, either.

  • In March, the NFL changed the regular season schedule for the first time since 1978, adding a 17th game. In 2020, the league expanded its playoffs to 14 teams.
  • MLB expanded its playoffs from 10 to 16 teams in the shortened 2020 season, and team owners have asked to expand playoffs going forward in collective bargaining negotiations.

Per league rules, the NBA’s play-in tourney is only guaranteed to happen this season.

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