"Nothin' lasts forever, even cold November rain"
—Guns N' Roses
I have argued to friends for several years that Major League Baseball should abbreviate its 162-game promenade to remedy sagging spectator interest. Stephen Strasburg's ballyhooed debut and a rare season in which five pitchers have thrown no-hitters transported America's former favorite pasttime back onto the average sports fan's radar screen.
Playoff games still sell out and provide raucous environments, some franchises can boast increased profit margins, and no one at the league's headquarters would dare scoff at surging TV earnings. Casual fandom and ratings tell a different story, one that suggests my idea isn't as half-baked as it sounds.
I live in Houston and listen often to an all sports talk AM radio station here. Hosts and callers discussed the Astros' opening night at Minute Maid Park with the usual enthusiasm. Hope springs eternal in April, right?
After the first week, those same folks, plus the bandwagoners, abandoned the 'Stros with a collective shrug. Instead of an apology, they offered a "meh."
I blame the engrossment decrease on the realists. That group includes me. They knew and preached to attentive Houstonians that the Astros would lose more than 100 games.
How can anyone not enthralled by the sport get excited about such a dreary prospect? Why spend money to watch a team with capable offensive weapons strike out and strand men on base in a famed hitter's park? Who would fork up hard-earned dough to watch a struggling pitcher throw batting practice to baseball's worst outfit?
Answer: the die-hards would do both. That group also includes me. The problem: the number of baseball fans fit for that designation is shrinking, even if vehement supporters deny it to no end. They will tell you the sport's regard continues to blossom. They will insist nothing is wrong.
I am not blinded by loyalty or idealism. I can see the bitter truth. Pro baseball is as in touch with the younger demographic as Miss South Carolina is with geography and world history.
Fans in markets with World Series contenders still care. They cannot reject a possible championship. A Red Sox fan will surely read this and want to slap me silly through his computer. Houston isn't Boston when it comes to baseball. If Fenway Park roars like a zoo after an air strike in mid-June, Minute Maid Park's vacuity squelches conviction like a librarian allergic to noise, even in September.
Less than five years ago, the Astros captured lightning in a bottle, a vase, a bowl, a crock pot, a planter, and a vacuum, and piggybacked the once unthinkable electricity jolt to the franchise's first ever World Series berth. Many of the spectators who crammed the juicebox to watch Brandon Backe throw a near shutout in an eventual loss to the Chicago White Sox now could not care less.
Interest in the Astros piqued two weeks ago when GM Ed Wade dealt away icons Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt to New York and Philadelphia. Supposed fans dialed sports talk shows to let Owner Drayton McLane know their patronage would cease.
Yet, hundreds in this city braved the sweltering heat that same week to get a good spot for a morning workout at Houston Texans training camp. The Texans, mind you, are the worst expansion team, record wise, in NFL history.
The Astros and Rockets have done something worthy of lavish praise but cannot gain any traction on the Texans. Football-crazy fans here met last year's a 9-7 finish with glee and irrepressible hope. The Astros could not even get a proverbial pat on the back when they finished with a winning mark a few years ago.
Why does the NFL remain king in the U.S.? I can think of a few reasons, none of which have to do with the game's purpose—schlepping a pigskin from one end of a field to another in a series of plays that each end in a matter of seconds.
The average American stays busy with work and must pledge free minutes to family matters. Those commitments leave little time for leisure activities. It is much easier, then, to carve out three to four hours each Sunday to watch one of 16 Texans games than to devote as many as seven days a week to stalk the Astros. Football teams even get a bye week, in which they don't play.
Most NFL games count for something, since there are so few of them. A knowledgeable habitué can count the number of meaningless contests on one hand. The Super Bowl hopefuls lucky and talented enough to sew up a favorable playoff position by December sometimes rest key players in the final weeks.
How many limbs and people would it take to tally the purposeless matches that clutter the MLB itinerary? The 162-date campaign is longer than Pinocchio's nose at a liar's convention—so long, in fact, that teams can go from potential World Series victors in July to skipping October altogether.
The New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers provide recent proof of this phenomenon. A squad can, by contrast, sit 15 games below .500 in mid-May and improve enough to reach the World Series. Hello, Astros. While the shock value often offsets the tedium, it also irritates me.
What the hell does any of the above have to do with hoops? Why did I tag this as an NBA column, when I consigned much of the intro to the leagues run by Bud Selig and Roger Goodell, instead of the one David Stern helms?
Keep reading if you can stomach more verbose controversy.
The Summer of LeBron, and the release of the full schedule today, has prompted me to consider how a compressed slate might also benefit the NBA. If 60 or so less baseball tilts could result in greater dugout concernment, a pro hoops calendar condensed by 20 to 30 dates might also revive hardwood verve.
The recent Boston Celtics-L.A. Lakers Finals, which concluded June 17, drew the highest ratings for an NBA series since Michael Jordan said adios to the Utah Jazz and his career in 1998. More than nine million viewers rubbernecked ESPN July 8 to find out where LeBron James would take his talents this fall.
A mere 11 million tubegoers scoped out the MLB's annual summer classic. NBA fans may wonder, like their MLB counterparts, what the ensuing fuss is about.
Before I present my argument to convince you otherwise, here are four reasons Stern will never sanction a regular-season schedule compression.
1. A Lockout Looms
The last thing the commish would want to do with a work stoppage clouding the 2011 hoops horizon is injure his owners' egos by further decreasing their profit margins.
Hard-working Joes and Jills do not want to watch or listen to billionaires squabble with millionaires after a double-dip recession, but they should get used to it. The bosses think their athletic employees, the ones that keep them wealthy, eat too much of the revenue pie. The employees, much to their chagrin, have been surrendering an increased portion of their paychecks for years. Both sides demand an end to the imagined nonsense.
If Former BP CEO Tony Hayward can draw an eight-figure severance pension by vacating his title after an historic, colossal natural disaster, the NBA's billionaire owners can slash player salaries until the payroll cuts force Carmelo Anthony to panhandle at a Denver intersection. A sports nation operated by the few with millions will hold us back.
If owners question their bang for the buck now, imagine how much they would complain if players were compensated the same for fewer games.
2. Would a Revenue Decline Make an Abstraction Worth it?
I concede that a shorter schedule might not pay enough dividends to justify a protocol change. Franchises rely on the gate proceeds from 41 home games and the payout exorbitant TV deals provide. Less competition means less money.
That makes zero business sense. Consider that the Lakers and Clippers profit no matter the teams' records thanks to the lucrative radio and TV contracts doled out in the nation's second-largest media market. The Lakers' enviable championship haul, then, is a bonus for Jerry Buss.
Even Buss, though, has suggested he wants to tighten his purse strings in future seasons. He paid a handsome price to keep his three-peat thirsty core together, plus add two draft picks, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, and Steve Blake to the rotation.
Could he still afford to shell out as many Benjamins with a 50 or 60-game jaunt? The NBA, while a nifty entertainment option, is also a business.
3. Some Traditions Matter
Stern did not hesitate to book the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors for two unprecedented regular season contests in London. Vince Carter's exile to Orlando made the squads' meetings a lesser domestic draw anyway.
If this additional across-the-pond venture represents another dance step in the league's ambitious globalization number, a departure from the 82-game routine would qualify as a show-stopping Mamba. Some would struggle to cope with the altered pace.
The numbers 82 and 162 are synonymous with professional basketball and baseball. Stern might lose as much money in deviating from a known quantity as he would gain in making regular-season games matter more.
Could ballers accustomed to September training camp and opening week in late-October adjust their inner clocks? Could coaches keep players in proper game shape if the season commenced in December or January?
How would die-hard fans manage to survive in an extended offseason?
4. Schedule-Making Chaos
The NBA's date planners already labor to balance 30 teams' schedules. The current, long-standing format allows a squad to face its division foes four times and the 15 in the other conference twice.
An abbreviated docket would not permit such equilibrium and might create unfair advantages for some clubs. Which team gets to play the Minnesota Timberwolves two or three times versus the shafted one that hosts or visits the perennial cellar-dwellers once?
A 50-game slate might also stick one team with a tougher than average schedule.
With reality grounded, consider how this idea might boost revenues, attract more fan interest, and yield juicier January competition.
1. No More November Reign
The team with best record against the top four seeds in each conference through January—the Denver Nuggets—bowed in the first round to the Utah Jazz. Denver boasted a towering 70 percent winning percentage versus those "elite" foes.
The Nuggets swept the Cleveland Cavaliers, beat the L.A. Lakers 3-1, handled the Boston Celtics at home, tied the San Antonio Spurs, and stood toe-to-toe with the Orlando Magic. How many scribes wrote after Denver blasted L.A.—which was playing on the second night of a back-to-back—at the Pepsi Center that the Nuggets had announced themselves via megaphone as the West's new favorites?
The NBA, however, does not bequeath its golden trophy in the regular season. Just call the Nuggets the kings of November.
That means nothing in June.
The Celtics and Spurs each lost to the embarrassing, deplorable Nets and contributed to New Jersey's 12-win total. That unintentional charity became a distant footnote when the two veteran squads exceeded mid-season expectations in handling their first-round opponents, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks. The Celtics' torch-bearing revolutionaries marched through the East until their counterparts in Hollywood doused the flames.
A shorter schedule would expose the pretenders and confirm the contenders earlier. If most agree that what happens in November stays there, why play games then?
2. The King's Men vs. The Black Mamba's Army
The Miami Heat have not played any games yet, and people have already coronated them as sports' next legendary dynasty. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh will win, six, seven, or eight consecutive championships! Only Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and the Lakers can stop them!
While such insulting prognostication ranks as futile in August, maybe these wannabe soothsayers are on to something. If the season started in December of January, it would take less time to find out if the Heat and Lakers could vanquish the other 28 squads as easily as projected.
Nah. Nobody cares about them.
3. Decreased Injury Risk
Players train, lift weights, and hit up playgrounds and rec gyms when organized basketball ends, whether in April, May, or June. Sometimes, ballers approach those stay-in-shape contests with the same intensity that marks official NBA dates. The few invited to participate with Magic Johnson in those famous summer competitions brag about their ferociousness.
A hoopster can break or tweak a bone sans proper team supervision in these offseason environments. The league cannot police these frequent summer activities. It can, however, abridge its schedule to ensure the best teams get a better crack at staying healthy.
What might 20 to 32 less regular-season games mean for the Celtics core, the few veterans still left on the Spurs, Andrew Bynum, or Yao Ming? It could keep them fresher for the playoffs and give their squads' a shot of adrenaline come gut-check time.
The 2009 postseason was marred by injuries to Kevin Garnett and Manu Ginobili. Yao Ming broke his right foot in the second round, Tyson Chandler hobbled around, Jameer Nelson did not suit up until the Finals and was ineffective, and Bynum was not his explosive self.
If Stern wants his best teams and players to shine when it matters most, he should ponder whether the 82-game grind yields excessive wear-and-tear. If a star pulls a muscle, sprains an ankle, breaks a shooting finger or a foot, or experiences continuous back spasms during a shortened schedule, that would just up the ante.
4. Slow Starts Cost More
Veteran squads loaded with experience can ease onto the treadmill, while others take advantage of the lower incline. The learning curve would become steeper and less forgiving for all walks of NBA life.
A team could no longer lose a game in November and say, "well, we've got 60 more." Squads would need to play their best basketball earlier in the campaign. Fans might witness more contests in which both sides compete with equal fervor.
The raised stakes would cause a viewership hike, since a shorter season would eliminate much of the perceived superfluousness. Owners could also palliate higher ticket prices and sell more season-long packages.
5. International Tournaments
I'm all for NBA globalization, but I don't think regular season contests hosted away from the U.S. and Canada should become a frequent occurrence. I also consider the far-in-the-distance idea of a European division a fool's paradise. That is a catastrophe in waiting. Thank goodness Stern continues to shove his chimera to the backburner.
My solution, given that I think games in other countries spread goodwill and hoops hardihood: a few college-like tournaments in Europe, China, and maybe Latin America. Let those people watch a string of contests that mean nothing to experienced basketball enthusiasts here and leave the meat for the NBA regular season.
Coaches could use these non-record binding events to tutor youngsters and create even better roster chemistry and rapport among the established players. These tournaments would serve as an extension of the preseason.
They would not fit within the constraints of the current schedule. Trimming down the itinerary would allow another month or two with which Stern could play the role of global-minded pal and emperor to his heart's content.
So, what am I suggesting? Play 50 or 60 games, instead of 82, but leave the playoff format unscathed. If this whole concept reads like Buckingham Palace in the sky, forgive me. It sure beats speculating where Joe Alexander, Adam Morrison, and Kwame Brown will sign. Expect that column later this week.
This won't ever happen, but maybe it should, for the reasons I outlined and more. As the Nuggets discovered in April, it's hard to hold a candle, or hoist a trophy, in the cold November rain.