As the shortened National Basketball Season under the bubble in Orlando moves into the playoffs, the ratings numbers are scattered all over. Some networks have decided to include total viewership (including streaming), arguing that media consumption habits have changed, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, the league's stance on social injustice matters has been widely applauded, but hasn't resonated well with all NBA fans.
But one thing can't be debated: The NBA can still attract viewers for games that matter, like last weekend's "play-in" contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies.
The eighth-place Blazers and ninth-place Grizzlies were competing to secure the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. The play-in was added this year to give teams that were less than four games out of eighth place at the end of the shortened regular season a shot at the playoffs. If the Grizzlies had won two games against Portland, they would've made the playoffs. Instead, they lost 126-121 and the Blazers will advance.
Played on a Saturday afternoon, and featuring two NBA markets that rarely draw national attention, the game averaged 1.9 million viewers and peaked at 2.6 million viewers at roughly 4:45 p.m. according to ESPN.
The network told CNBC the game was up 7 percent from the "NBA on ABC seeding games, which average an audience of 1.8 million viewers."
"That is a good number," longtime sports television executive Neal Pilson said of the Blazers-Grizzlies match-up. "It's a good rating and a good audience. It demonstrates games that have significance – win or lose – almost in any sport, do get a larger audience than an average league game."
"We won the day," added NBA league executive Byron Spruell in an interview with CNBC. "To have that many million viewers watching our product and that match-up and the inaugural play-in, that was huge for us."
Spruell, the NBA's president of operations, said the game, featuring a dynamic superstar in Damian Lillard and rookie star Ja Morant, was "compelling and exciting."
And with the ratings serving as support, the NBA plans to discuss adding the play-in model to its traditional 82-game season permanently.
"We're excited about the foundation that has been set for the play-in and where we can go for the future," Spruell said.
Spruell said the league is learning a lot from its $200 million Walt Disney World bubble campus, which was added after the NBA suspended play on March 11 due to the pandemic.
The NBA's 22-team format has been entertaining, opening to 2 million viewers when it returned on July 30. Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, said he's been surprised by "the level of intensity in empty arenas with guys that haven't played competitively for months.
"The quality of the games have been quite good – close, exciting, intense, dramatic endings," he said. "It's been quality television."
The NBA is paying attention to why competition is fresh and exciting, and it's partly due to the lack of travel, which takes a toll on players' bodies. The league tried to adjust the schedule over the years but has yet to find a cure for "load management."
The benefits of less travel are a good argument for a series-like schedule, similar to Major League Baseball, which Spruell said is being discussed as a potential addition in the future.
The model would allow teams to play back-to-back games in the same city against the same team. Also, clubs could play all their season match-ups against clubs in multiple-team states like Texas, California, and New York on one trip instead of making multiple stops throughout the year.
The series model could also help create scarcity if planned correctly, as some cities could see certain teams and stars only every other year, similar to how the NFL operates.
Spruell said the NBA would continue to "look at the data around travel, look at how it has impacted the quality play. Are there better opportunities for teams to plan? I think all those things will play into it as learning opportunities."
Pilson said he likes the series concept for two reasons: expenses and must-see competition.
"I'm surprised that it hasn't occurred to them until this point because travel is an expense for the league and the teams," Pilson said. He added the second game of the back-to-back series concept could serve as "that get-even level of play that's kind of fun to watch."
Some league executives have also that conferences be abolished, giving the best 16 teams overall a shot in the post-season, but Spruell suggested that's not under consideration at the moment.
Pilson noted, "There is a learning curve here. They are reading the tea leaves. They're looking at audience measurements, they're looking at ratings, the players, the level of intensity. The rivalries and player interactions, it's been good stuff. It's been quality television."
Spruell also said the league discussed a December timeline for the start of next season, as it wants to complete its 82-game schedule by late June 2021 and avoid colliding with the Olympics. "A lot of things have to go into consideration," Spruell said, including input and approval of the National Basketball Players Association.
All these concepts are mere talks at this point, as the NBA is trying to keep its current season intact. But Spruell said the NBA would continue to explore how it can create more match-ups and games that "matter," as the league now clearly sees the benefit of the play-in contest.
"With change and opportunity comes innovation and experience," he said. "So, having this experience around being on a campus, with health and safety first – there are a lot of learnings that make you think about, and if we're ever able to get back to 82 games in-market, that's great.
"But is there something in-between given where the pandemic might be next season, given the experience we're seeing from our teams and players in this campus format. Is there something in-between that we'll be able to accomplish, too?"