NBA's In-Season Tournament Idea Is So Good, Other Leagues Should Try It TooJuly 17, 2014
Adam Silver sure knows how to win an offseason.
From the NBA's handling of the Donald Sterling situation to the insane World Cup-rivaling frenzy surrounding NBA free agency, to a residual growth of interest in the Summer League season, the NBA has effectively turned itself into a year-round sport.
Silver wants to continue that momentum by actually making the least-interesting part of the calendar in the NBA—the regular season—into something more interesting for fans, and more rewarding for some of the less-competitive teams.
Here is what Silver told reporters on Wednesday after meeting with the NBA's Board of Governors, via Matt Moore at CBSSports.com:
As one of our general managers said at the meeting, there's very few things that you can win in the NBA. I mean, when you think about European soccer, for example, they have the FA Cup and they have other tournaments throughout the season, so I could imagine if we were to look at some sort of mid season tournament I would imagine doing something in Vegas. This would be a terrific neutral site location.
The idea is brilliant, and it could be a huge boon for the NBA that has fallen into class warfare during the regular season with as many title contenders each season as teams tanking to build for the future. It's such a good idea, that other American sports leagues should steal it.
More trophies, more titles, more chances for teams to hang a banner. It's brilliant. For everyone.
The current disparity of talent between rosters in the NBA should be a huge concern for Silver, but installing in-season mini competitions could go a long way toward making the regular season more interesting for fans of teams that are usually out of the playoff race before it even starts.
No matter how big the tournament gets—and it will take decades before an in-season tournament is anything more than a distraction to some franchises—top contenders for the NBA title aren't going to put their best teams on the court until they get very deep into the event, if at all. That leaves younger and less talented teams with a chance to play against equivalent rosters, making an in-season event a way to showcase different talent and give the middle-of-the-pack teams a fighting chance to win something.
Silver compared the idea to the FA Cup, and the one bugaboo of that competition is that, in the early stages, most clubs don’t want to use their top talent at the risk of tiring them out for league play. The other big issue with the FA Cup is that the draw is totally random, so two top Premier League sides can play in the early stages while a Championship and First Division club could face each other in the event's last few rounds.
The NBA would not have that concern, unless they started inviting D-League teams to participate as well.
The biggest difference between this idea and the FA Cup is that Silver seems to suggest the tournament be held on a neutral court in Las Vegas, which leads to the assumption that it would take place over one week during the regular season, with all the teams making the trip together.
That would be…amazing. It would be an NBA convention 30 times the size of the All-Star game. It would also be a logistical nightmare, and something the NBA may not want to deal with until the later stages of the event.
Like the FA Cup, the NBA could hold the first few rounds on home courts, then play the semifinals and finals at a neutral location like Las Vegas. By that point, hopefully teams would be more willing to field their best lineups, giving the tournament more cache than the potentially-glorified in-season summer league event it could be if teams had to spend a week during the season in Las Vegas playing non-season games.
The NBA could also create buzz around the draw for each round, much like the FA Cup or UEFA Champions League does in those events.
Think how big the NBA could make this tournament if an early-round draw pitted LeBron and the Cavs against Bosh, Wade and the Heat in Miami.
The logistics would be a struggle to overcome—would this be additional games or would the regular season be shortened, would players be paid extra and whatnot—but it would be an awesome plan if Silver can push it through.
NBA, MLS & U.S. Soccer
This is not, by the way, a new concept in America.
The NCAA hosts multiple basketball tournaments during the season, some of which take place in one location with others having early-round games hosted by one of the competing schools.
In soccer, the U.S. Open Cup is exactly what the NBA is talking about, other than the inclusion of lower division clubs. Actually, the top teams in MLS play in several in-season competitions, with title contenders needing to balance between regular-season matches, U.S. Open Cup play and, for some teams, CONCACAF Champions League competition.
That tournament model would actually be the best for the NBA to adopt.
In Champions League play, the tournament is set up similar to the recently completed World Cup, where teams are selected into groups to play a round-robin that determines a group winner.
Group opponents would be played home and away as part of the regular season, but the results would go toward the tournament tally, not the drive to the playoffs.
Imagine taking 10 percent of the regular season and counting those games toward a separate in-season event. Each franchise could be put into a five-team pod, set to play eight games (four home and four away) to advance in the tournament.
If the Spurs want to rest their stars for something that matters more to them, they'd have to rest them a lot. And maybe they would, but it really couldn't be much worse than what the teams that know they're making the playoffs already do as the regular season winds down. In fact, an in-season event might allow coaches to keep their rosters even fresher, making both the tournament and the playoffs more interesting.
Following the group stage, the NBA could take the six group winners, add in two second-place teams with the best records, and host a knockout-style tournament in Vegas with just those teams over four days sometime after the All-Star break.
The entire sports world would stop for that. It would be incredible, and other sports could see just how great it is and follow the NBA's lead in America. More trophies for everyone!
MLS, as mentioned before, already has the in-season tournament fully in place, but the U.S. Open Cup is so low profile most matches aren't even on television. In some cases, fans can't even find streaming video online. If MLS and U.S. Soccer want people to take that competition seriously, they need to make an effort to get it in front of as many eyes as possible.
The Playoff Conundrum
The reason the FA Cup, Copa del Rey or other in-season tournaments work in Europe is because the leagues over there don't have playoffs. The season ends when it ends and the team in first at that time wins the title. An in-season tournament is essentially in lieu of one in the postseason, which is precisely what MLS should do to be more in line with the rest of the world.
Americans are used to playoffs, so it's wrong to suggest MLS should eliminate the playoff structure altogether, but tweaking it to give more weight to the regular-season champion—MLS awards the winner of that competition its Supporters Shield—makes logical soccer sense.
If MLS took the playoffs and turned it into an in-season tournament, the season could end with the Supporters Shield being the de facto champion, with the playoffs, made up of the top four teams in each conference, being held in the first half of the next season.
Much like in Europe, where finishing near the top in league can qualify teams for Champions League and Europa League tournaments, finishing high in the race for the Supporters Shield could qualify teams for the "playoffs" that would kick off the next year's season.
Now, the big issue with MLS is that its schedule is imbalanced, meaning that the Supporters Shield is not awarded as fairly as the European titles, where all teams play home-and-home with the entire league.
Having said that, it's not something that can't be easily worked around. And it's not like the MLS playoffs are working in their current form.
The league lets too many teams in the playoffs—ten of the current 19 clubs make the postseason—and the 2013 MLS Cup had just over half a million people watching on ESPN with another 514,000 watching on UniMas.
Moving the playoffs to an in-season tournament that would finish at some point in the first half of the following season could actually provide more interest in the Cup. Frankly, it's almost impossible to provide less.
The NHL Classic
Much like the NBA, the NHL could easily create an in-season tournament to create additional buzz for a sport that, at least in America, had seen a marked drop in overall interest over the last 15 years.
The NHL already has a buzz-worthy event with their annual Winter Classic, making a tie-in for an in-season tournament easier than what the NBA currently faces.
For the NHL, the plan would be to simply build toward the Winter Classic each year, with teams vying for a place in the event by advancing in the tournament.
Now, two obviously logistical issues come into play there. First, the site for the Winter Classic is usually announced well in advance, and facilities would have to be set aside in case teams in the tournament earn a spot in the final.
To combat that, the Winter Classic could be held in a neutral site venue, similar to what Silver suggested for the NBA, but will 100,000 fans pack into a stadium in Michigan if the Red Wings aren't playing in the game?
Still, there could be a way for NHL to expand the interest in the Winter Classic more than just adding additional outdoor games. Adding all the other outdoor games last season only served to cheapen the event, making each less special from a national perspective.
Building a tournament around it could make the game—and those leading up—even more compelling.
If location is an issue, why not limit the tournament to the Original Six teams plus the two participants in the previous season's Stanley Cup finals. Not everything has to be spread across the entire league, does it?
MLB's Season Is Long Enough
Major League Baseball plays 162 games in the regular season with the potential for the World Series champion to play in nearly 20 additional postseason games.
Compared to other sports, that's a lot. Hell, compared to anything in life that's a lot.
Why not, then, take a portion of those regular season games and turn it into some kind of special event?
Now, unlike in the other leagues, it would be logistically impossible to add in more games during the week or have some teams playing more games than others over the course of the season. With pitching rotations alone, an in-season tournament would be something MLB will never see happen.
But what if some of the existing games counted for something else?
Wait. WAIT. I just spent the last 20 minutes taking a break from writing this to figure out a way that MLB could have an in-season tournament and while I came up with five vastly different ideas, they are all horrible. It's not worth your time to read, nor mine to write.
The structure of three- and four-game series do not provide MLB much room for one-off tournaments.
The only thing MLB could do to spice up the regular season like the NBA is proposing is to go back to the original World Series idea by putting the champion of the first half against the champion of the second half. That would essentially create two unique seasons, split by the All-Star break.
That's really not any better than the five ideas I didn't share with you. In fact, it might be worse.
Really, what MLB could do, is give the leader of each league at the All-Star break a spot in the playoffs as the first Wild Card team.
Now THAT would be interesting. Rather than giving spots in the play-in game to the two teams with the fifth best records at the end of the season, give the spots to the teams with the best record at the midway point, allowing them the luxury of knowing they are already locked into a playoff spot by July.
That move would create a frenzy leading up to the All-Star break, and might make some early-season trades more plausible, adding to the overall buzz for the sport.
If the team that has the best overall record at the midway point qualifies for the playoffs at season's end, then the final spot could be given to the winner of the team with the last Wild Card-caliber record at the end of the year. Simple.
Or maybe baseball is fine without any mid-season gimmicks. (Take THAT, Home Run Derby.) Just keep things how they are, add a skills competition to the All-Star festivities and figure out a way to speed up the damn games. (Another column for another time.)
Could the NFL…Nah!
Or could they?
Hey, hear me out…Roger Goodell wants his 18-game schedule, right?
What if the preseason was a tournament where winners of the first week play in the second week and so on. It would be a disaster, and the coaches would hate it, but the Commish would get his meaningful (sort of) football and he'd only have to add one game to the end of the preseason to do it!
I'm kidding, of course. Football's tournament is just fine, even if too many mediocre teams make the playoffs in football, like in the NHL and NBA.
The season, however, is just fine how it is. Though it is odd that the sport with the least games and the one with the most games are the hardest two American sports to incorporate some kind of in-season tournament structure.
Tournaments for Everyone, or Someone(s)
While an in-season NBA tournament might be the most fun to watch (and far more interesting than the league's regular season), clearly the easiest sport to facilitate an in-season event would be soccer. The structure already exists with all the FIFA-mandated non-league days, so players are used to wonky schedules.
An in-season tourney would be amazing in the NHL, but really, with all the star power and the idea of having at least the final four in a neutral site, there is no better idea than pulling this off in the NBA.
Silver and his Board are onto something here.
If done right, an in-season tournament could be a big win for the league. So far, Silver has done just about everything right as Commissioner. Let's hope the teams and players back him on this as much as they have on everything else this offseason.