NBA play-in games are a success — here’s why the league should keep the format


LeBron James made his feelings known. National Basketball Association team owner Mark Cuban did, too. Some like it, and others don’t.

But the NBA play-in games went from pandemic necessity to possible permanent feature.

The play-in games pair seeds 7-to-10 in each conference, with winners securing the final four playoff spots. The NBA installed the games last summer because the season was interrupted due to Covid-19.

“It added some excitement for our TV partners and for our fans to watch games that are important and meaningful,” Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver told CNBC when asked about the games. “And from an additional entertainment aspect, it’s an additional asset for our media partners.”

The latest on the viewership front is the NBA reached over 5 million viewers for the premium play-in: James’ Los Angeles Lakers against the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors. It’s not pro football viewership stats, but nothing in U.S. sports will ever match the NFL. And few media pundits will frown at 5 million viewers on a Wednesday night.

Now NBA commissioner Adam Silver will now navigate the politics of continuing playoff play-in games. He’ll have to deal with the basketball traditionalists, the egos in the ownership group and the players who will make their feedback known. But Silver’s job to convince his NBA constituencies shouldn’t be difficult, and here’s why.

Viewership is strong, and that’s what matters
Last year, only one play-in game occurred – the Memphis Grizzlies against the Portland Trail Blazers – as disparity guidelines were in place. The Blazers-Grizzlies averaged over 1 million viewers and peaked at 2.6 million on a Saturday afternoon in August. For two small-market teams, that’s a success for ESPN.

Turner Sports said the seventh-seed Boston Celtics win over the Washington Wizards averaged 2.5 million viewers. And the lower-seeded contest (Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers) averaged 1.4 million viewers.

And James helped ESPN average 5.6 million viewers with his appearance. The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 103-100 thanks to James’ game-winning shot. ESPN also averaged 2.2 million viewers for the first contest featuring Memphis Grizzlies rising star Ja Morant.

“The early returns are good,” said NBA executive Evan Wasch, one of the people James suggested should be fired for his part installing the play-in. Wasch is the executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics. Part of his job is to help format the games, which were on the NBA’s radar before he arrived at the league.

With the potential of six new games added, that should only help the NBA when it comes back to the negotiating table with its national media partners. Early speculation is the NBA would seek just around $70 billion for new rights. The current agreement runs through 2024.

But if fans are watching, which so far they are, things could get interesting for Disney and the new Discovery-WarnerMedia.

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