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Saturday, June 22, 2024

The NBA Wants Your Attention All Year Long

  • The Association is battling the NFL for attention throughout the sports calendar.
  • Las Vegas Summer League, NBA Con, and the newly announced In-Season Tournament are making the NBA a year-round product.
Victor Wembanyama sits next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at NBA Con 2023.

July represents the dog days of summer — and typically the slowest part of the NBA calendar.

The Denver Nuggets hoisted their first Larry O’Brien Trophy as champions in June, and aside from some strong buzz this month from the NBA Draft, trades, and free agency, the NBA chatter should usually die down until the fall, when teams return for training camp and preseason games.

But nowadays, the league wants more: It wants fans to be plugged in — and spend — even when meaningful games aren’t being played.

“As we think about this larger experiential moment, it’s with the thought of the fan always being put first,” NBA head of event strategy and development Joey Graziano told Front Office Sports. “Is this something that the fan is willing to be able to get off the couch and go to? And if the answer is yes, then I think it opens up a number of business drivers for us.”

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This summer in particular has been a treasure trove for hoop heads and casual fans alike — and it’s largely been driven by one man. Victor Wembanyama, the French international sensation and basketball unicorn, has dominated headlines ever since the San Antonio Spurs won the lottery to select him first overall in the draft.

Wembymania hot-wired the NBA’s marquee — but historically speaking, relatively quiet — offseason event, the Las Vegas NBA Summer League.

Tickets for his debut game sold at record prices on the secondary market, and TV viewership was the second-highest ever for the tournament (Zion Williamson’s 2019 debut was responsible for the previous and current records, respectively). Overall, the opening weekend of Summer League averaged 456,000 viewers per game — the most ever for broadcaster ESPN.

Summer League has grown in influence over the years, and the 2023 edition, which concludes Monday, has clearly provided a spark. But the 77-year-old league is striving for a level of year-round sports omnipresence not often seen in the United States.

It’s going for the top shelf: the kind of domestic attention usually reserved for the NFL — and internationally, the undying appeal of soccer.

“I think the fervor [from fans] always was there,” sports media consultant John Kosner tells FOS. “It just wasn’t exploited because neither the NFL nor the NBA had yet really expanded their programming beyond their seasons.”

A line of fans waits to enter NBA Con 2023 in Las Vegas.
The first-ever NBA Con brought basketball fans from around the world to Las Vegas. Credit: NBA

The Personal Touch

The NBA’s mission isn’t just about putting on more events, but also increasing the quality of its offerings at existing ones. That’s why last summer, it created NBA Experiences — a program of premium packages designed to bring fans closer to players off the court.

NBA Experiences sets up shop at satellite NBA events such as its international games, All-Star Weekend, and Summer League, providing meet-and-greets, behind-the-scenes tours, and more.

“Our players are as dynamic off the court as they are powerful on,” says Graziano. “They’re entrepreneurs, they’re investors, they’re artists, they’re musicians, and we wanted to be able to showcase their holistic interests.”

This line of thinking culminated in the first NBA Con — a festival of NBA fandom held in Vegas last weekend alongside Summer League.

Like any other fan convention — think Comic-Con — the NBA’s version included exclusive giveaways, concerts from artists like 2Chainz, and panels with current and former NBA stars. Coming off his first Summer League game, Wembanyama sat down on the main stage with no less than NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“It’s those kinds of exclusive collaborations, those can’t-miss moments, those one-of-one items that we think our fans are craving and that we believe, at the NBA, we’re uniquely positioned to deliver,” Graziano says.

He adds that the league plans to eventually hold multiple NBA Cons per year, both domestically and abroad.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson with the trophy after they won the Commissioners Cup-Championships with a victory over the Chicago Sky.
The WNBA Commissioners Cup has set an example for the NBA In-Season Tournament. Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

More To Play For

Like any good convention, NBA Con 2023 used its platform to exclusively announce the league’s newest initiative — the In-Season Tournament.

An idea that has been brewing for years, the IST will inject some much-needed action into the first half of the NBA schedule and before the jockeying for playoff spots traditionally picks up around Christmas. It will also provide an opportunity for players to compete for more hardware — the newly annointed NBA Cup.

The league gained the confidence to go ahead with the new format after several years of experimenting in its affiliate leagues with the G-League’s Showcase Cup and the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup (a WNBA spokesperson told FOS that while its tournament wasn’t created as a test for IST, the NBA certainly benefited from studying it).

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The IST will also provide another outlet to reach international fans and encourage them to travel to the U.S. for games.

“That’s the way they’ve grown up across other sports like soccer,” says Graziano, “so for a league that is as global as ours, we have to continue to build things that we know are going to make the global NBA fan find closer connection points.”

But perhaps most importantly for the league’s bottom line, IST provides more inventory for the NBA’s media product — which will be crucial as it enters landmark media rights negotiations next year.

FOS reported that while media plans for the inaugural tournament won’t be announced until August, the league will take an “everything on the table approach” to selling the rights for future seasons.

That includes folding it into a larger rights package or selling it on its own — the WNBA has already found success with the latter option in taking the Commissioner’s Cup Championship to streamer Amazon Prime Video.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announcing the first In-Season Tournament at NBA Con 2023.
Commissioner Adam Silver has teased an NBA franchise in Las Vegas. Credit: NBA

What Happens In Vegas…

The one thing all of these events have in common is that they take place in Las Vegas — arguably the hottest locale in the sports world right now, and an increasingly important one for the league’s ambitions.

Like its experimentation with the in-season tournament format, the NBA has watched its sister league flourish in Sin City for years. The Las Vegas Aces are the reigning WNBA Champions, are enormous favorites (-290) to repeat, and hosted the WNBA All-Star Game at Michelob Ultra Arena on Saturday.

In time, such success could convince the NBA to bring its own team to the city.

“It’s not a sure thing, but as I’ve said before, I think it’s natural that organizations grow over time,” commissioner Adam Silver recently said at the Associated Press Sports Editors Convention. “We will look at [Las Vegas]. There’s no doubt there’s enormous interest in Seattle. That’s not a secret.” He added that the league isn’t considering expansion at the moment.

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Whether the league ends up in Vegas or not, it’s clear that the NBA is chasing a piece of the cultural zeitgeist that perhaps only the NFL — which already has a presence in the city with the Raiders — has accomplished.

America’s most popular league is always lurking in the background of sports conversation, inciting a fervor among fans that entices media to give it extra coverage and fans to follow it year-round.

The NBA, then, may not be able to take attention away from The Shield — but that ultimately may not matter on a global scale.

“It’s a Darwinian sports world out there,” says Kosner. “I don’t think the NBA is going to challenge the viewership supremacy of the NFL in this country, but I do think that by the time you get to the NBA’s next media deal, it’s going to be pretty clear that the NBA is the most successful global professional sports league.”

The NBA believes it can get to that level — and feels its best way to achieve it is by sticking to its guns and making its products a constant presence for the fans.

“Traditions are going to take time to be able to build,” says Graziano. “What’s important is to continue to be very clear about why we’re doing this — and to remain authentic to our values.”

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