It's still early, but the National Basketball Association could have a Christmas gift in disguise with its shortened 72-game schedule for the 2020-21 season.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to a Dec. 22 return weeks after completing its Covid-19 bubble postseason. And with the short turnaround, the two sides eliminated 10 games from its regular 82-game schedule as the league wants to get back on track for the 2021-22 season.
By returning in December, the NBA projects to add an extra $500 million in revenue as it will safeguard its Christmas Day games, which are huge for its media partners in ESPN and Turner Sports.
Sports experts said another shortened season allows the NBA to monitor how 10 fewer games could help its product, especially in a new age of consumption habits and content overload.
"I would argue, with a leap of faith, that we'll never see 82 again," said Tony Ponturo, CEO of Ponturo Management Group, a marketing consulting firm.
"It's going to be better across the board of quality basketball and healthier athletes," added Ponturo, who served as vice-president of Anheuser-Busch global media sports and entertainment marketing. "You take the [revenue] hit and figure out how to make it up in other ways."
During the bubble at Disney's campus in Orlando, Byron Spruell, the NBA president of operations, hinted the league would be open to changes to its schedule, especially as officials realized it resulted in better play quality.
Spruell suggested the NBA would continue exploring its play-in games and incorporating Major League Baseball-like series schedules. The thinking is less travel for players will keep them healthier and result in higher quality and more competitive games.
"Having this experience around being on a campus, with health and safety first – there are a lot of learnings that make you think about," he told CNBC in an August interview.
"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 forma," Spruell said. "Is there something in-between that we'll be able to accomplish, too?"
The answer is yes.
For years the NBA has struggled with teams resting players, so cutting travel and using MLB-style schedules could help combat the issue. A 72-game model could also help teams with practice time to allow new rosters to become better acquainted with coaching systems.
Media rights make up a large portion of NBA revenue, but network partners shouldn't be impacted with a 72-game model.
ESPN and Turner will continue to receive their share of star-loaded games. On the local front, one NBA executive pointed out that regional broadcast partners usually aren't guaranteed 82 games due to certain NBA games' national exclusivity.
And ratings could see a bump as the NBA could start in early December for preseason games and make its Christmas Day debut, an idea that has been floated by league executives for years. Turner would benefit as NBA games would avoid direct competition with the National Football League on Thursday nights if the NBA starts in December.
Said Ponturo: "Unless you're a die-hard fan of an in-market team, most other fans, the causal NBA fans, they're probably not even focusing on the NBA until Christmas. They have college football; they have NFL."
Quality of play aside, NBA owners care about revenue and subtracting 10 gameday cash streams, which the league identified as 40% of income, will need a replacement. In a report from network partner ESPN, the league claims it could lose $4 billion with no fans or ticket revenue next season.
But with fewer games, owners would save on operational costs and justify an increasing ticket prices, which could create demand via scarcity as fewer popular teams would visit cities per year with a shorter season.
And if play-in games are included, those extra contests would be revenue-generating, too.
Team presidents are also anticipating jersey patches to increase in value with international opportunities, and there's chatter the NBA will loosen its grip on sponsorship restrictions to help teams recover from Covid-19 losses.
Columbia University sports management professor Len Elmore did caution the added revenue avenues are "speculation as to whether they [teams] can make it up through those various channels," he said.
But Elmore, who also played 10 seasons in the NBA, agreed the league should explore 72 games to "see what it does for the quality of play," he said. "That [improved quality] will lead to other revenue opportunities."
Added Ponturo: "You have to pay attention to the quality of your sport as well as the revenue generation. If players are going to be healthier, and you're not going to have stars sitting out, games can be spread out, they're not playing back-to-backs – it's going to be better quality. I think this, in an odd way, could be a blessing in disguise."
In a time where MLB and the NFL are adding games, perhaps the NBA is better suited to use addition by subtraction with its regular-season.
"I would imagine everything is on the table for innovation and improvement," Elmore added. "That's the one thing a crisis like this ought to yield – a thinking of how to prepare for instances like this, change, and how to improve. I'm pretty sure the decision-makers at the NBA are utilizing this opportunity to do just that."