No matter where you spent your holiday weekend, NBA free agency news likely found you. No secluded lake, no backyard barbecue, no camping trip was remote enough to escape the headlines — and massive contracts — generated in the past 72 hours. For those lucky few free agents, it was a payday in the making since at least October 2014.
That’s when the NBA signed a jaw-dropping deal with ESPN and Turner worth nearly $2.9 billion annually. That figure represented a nearly 180% increase in compensation for broadcast rights for the league over its previous contract with the two broadcast behemoths.
Why was it so lucrative? Well, we’ve known for a while that in the age of the DVR and Netflix, there are fewer and fewer properties on which marketers can rely for both massive tune-in numbers and a guarantee that those viewers will be watching live. Outside of sports, there are few TV shows and live events — primarily award shows — that can promise both of these things.
The NBA reached its popularity apex thanks to a crop of otherworldly talents, namely — Kobe, LeBron, Duncan, Durant, Dirk, Curry, Wade, etc. — all entering their prime alongside one another, and more or less trading titles — spreading them to 7 markets in 10 years. It also helps that, at the time of negotiation, all other domestic leagues were tied up in broadcast deals until at least 2020. Not only was the NBA the prettiest one at the party in 2014, everyone else brought a date.
On its face, the deal should be good for consumers. The consensus is that it will mean more nationally televised games for smaller market teams or late-season-surging teams, due to a wider array of broadcasts and impressive flex-scheduling options.
For players, though, the deal is incredible — salary caps and league minimums had to rise alongside the broadcast deal, per the in-place collective bargaining deal. Many of the league’s best and savviest players had the foresight to set themselves up for unrestricted free agency this summer or next, like LeBron, who last summer signed a two-year deal with a year one player option.
For sure, it’s a great time to be a free agent in the NBA. But, is it really going to be a great time to be a fan? After all, the new broadcast deal is so valuable because of high interest in the regular season. But, when the dust settles on a free agency that has largely seen the scarce few title contenders shore up their odds even further — *cough*, Kevin Durant to the Warriors, *cough* — even the most optimistic fans outside of Cleveland and Golden State have to be feeling like 2017 won’t be their year. Will fans in smaller markets still be interested if their teams are, at absolute best, probably fighting for second place in their conference?
The NBA is in a precarious position. An embarrassment of riches in individual talent and sudden influx of massive dollars has made the league top heavy. Now, there may be no hope in the coming years for the kind of parity on which the NFL has built its empire, not while teams’ expanded salary caps offer enough cushion to lure high-profile talents on rosters that are already jam-packed.
And what does it all mean for marketers? It’s going to take time for the dust to settle and sort it all out, to be sure. But there is a palpable feeling that we may be at the onset of a time where hometown teams mean less than ever before. The era of massive national broadcast and accessible streaming has come alongside one in which “super teams” continue being built through surprising short-term deals in established markets.
If the players aren’t going to be loyal to teams in a traditional sense, and virtually every game is available to consumers, will fans continue to suffer through watching your mediocre local boys when there’s a different juggernaut to take in every year? Young fans may do away with the dirty word “bandwagon” all together and simply opt to follow a favorite player through a career, instead of a single team through a lifetime.
But luckily for us, the NBA has a deep cache of bankable stars to leverage through individual sponsorships, certainly its largest ever. The talent pool offers not only tried-and-true stars, like Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki, but a huge class of emergent young talents still buried on smaller market teams like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Gordon Hayward, Andre Drummond and Andrew Wiggins.
This summer has made one thing clear — the NBA now merits the sort of offseason coverage that the NFL alone once commanded in America. Whether or not the frenzied interest will hold in the dead of winter remains to be seen. For teams and for local in-market sponsors outside of the Bay or “The Land,” there should be legitimate concern about fan interest in the 2016 - 17 season. The money that made this offseason so interesting was earned based on compelling regular season play. Unfortunately, it may be that same money that makes the regular season less compelling.