The NBA season returns on Tuesday 25th October, as we again face into the prospect of eight months filled with innovation, excitement and intrigue; both on the basketball court and in front offices right across the league.
Given how last season unfolded, and how the league has been trending in the last number of years, it should come as little surprise that commercial interest in the NBA has never been higher. On the eve of this new season, the league is awash with money following a record-breaking television rights deal and we are about to witness the last season of NBA without sponsors on team jerseys.
It was, some say, the best NBA season of all time. The Golden State Warriors, led by the league’s two-time Most Valuable Player Steph Curry, became the most successful team in the history of the NBA’s regular season. The Warriors won an historic 73 games (losing only 9 times), beating the record of Michael Jordan’s legendary 1996 Chicago Bulls, as well as preventing Western Conference rivals the San Antonio Spurs from completing an unbeaten home season along the way. As defending champions, Golden State were expected to march through the playoffs to their second consecutive title and confirm themselves as perhaps the greatest basketball team of all time.
This is where things began to slip slightly. On their way to the Western Conference finals, star player Curry suffered a knee injury and did not appear fully himself for the rest of the playoffs. Trailing 3-1 in best of seven series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors became only the tenth team in over 200 attempts to win a playoff series despite facing a two game deficit after four games. The circle was then complete as Golden State held a 3-1 advantage over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavillers in the NBA Finals in June, only to lose in a thrilling series in Game 7 and hand the ‘Cavs’ a first ever NBA title.
And now, they’re going to do it all again.
As announced in April of this year by the NBA’s forward-thinking commissioner Adam Silver, sponsors will appear on team jerseys from the 2017-18 season. In a first for one of the major American sports leagues, sponsors’ logos will feature on the front of jerseys, measuring about 2½ by 2½ inches. This inital three-year trial will operate alongside the league’s exclusive kit contract with Nike which an eight-year deal beginning at the same times the sponsorship trial and is reported as being worth $1bn.
More immediately, this season marks the beginning of a mammoth nine-year TV rights deal for the NBA, which sees an extension of the league’s relationship with broadcasters ESPN and TNT, who will continue to air regular season games, and also sees ABC retain their exclusive rights to the NBA Finals. Much like the Premier League’s bumper deal, which started last year, the NBA will see a significant rise in revenue from this agreement. In fact, calling it ‘significant’ may be underplaying it; the league will receive $2.6bn annually, a figure which represents a 180% increase per year from the previous deal.
This massive increase merely underlines the direction in which broadcasters believe the NBA is moving. The on-court product is attractive and exciting; teams like the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs have helped usher in what is being called the ‘pace and space’ era; where quick ball handling, movement off the ball and an ability to make three point shots are in most demand. This new style is regarded as being more attractive to watch than the more physical and attritional play seen in the 1990’s.
One of the most impressive characteristics of those in charge of the commercial arm of the NBA is their keen eye on the future, with the association appearing at the vanguard of new technologies and platforms on which to feature their games and the content around them. Already in existence is a relationship with social media app Snapchat, which sees video content from selected games (pre, post and during game) appearing on the app’s main page.
Even more exciting, however, is the league’s dalliances with Virtual Reality (VR).
While the Premier League recently saw its first game broadcast in VR (Arsenal’s clash with Chelsea in September), the NBA rolled out ambitious plans surrounding VR last season. In conjunction with the app NextVR, the league showed high profile games such as the season opener for then-champions Golden State Warriors and the Christmas Day clash between the Warriors and the Cavs live in VR.
As if live offerings were not enough, the NBA then teamed up with tech company Oculus to put together a 25-minute documentary around last season’s NBA finals, culminating in that historic comeback from LeBron James and the Cavs. The video was met with widespread acclaim, with the increase in video quality noted as a major plus point. The video not only focused on the action taking place over the course of the seven game series but allowed viewers to peak behind the curtain with narrator Michael B. Jordan, the star of “Creed”, ushering you from court side to locker room to television control room to give fans a complete picture of what goes into the making of an NBA finals.
When you mention basketball to people not very familiar with the sport, it will not take long for the subject of Air Jordan footwear to come up. Michael Jordan became a sporting pioneer in the 1990’s when he and Nike developed a personalised range of basketball footwear. Though Jordan was the first, he has been far from the last and, in recent years, the number of NBA stars with their own range of footwear has exploded. Endorsement deals surrounding apparel have become huge business for athletes in the NBA. Elite level players such as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have their own footwear deals (Nike KD & Curry Two with Under Armour respectively) but, as with matters on the court, it is LeBron James who leads the way. In 2014, Nike sold $340m worth of James’s footwear range in the United States alone. So important is King James to the brand that December 2015 saw him sign a company-first lifetime deal with Nike. Original estimates put the value of the deal at $500m but James’ manager has since hinted in interviews that the value is closer to $1bn.
Deals such as those held by Durant, Curry and LeBron represent a significant differentiation between the NBA and the National Football League; NFL rules are constructed in such a way which prevents large-scale changes in design for cleats worn by players and thus there are very few personalised footwear deals available for NFL players.
If matters off-court have heated up for the NBA this off-season, what we will see on court from the end of this month until the finals in June of next year will more than meet those heightened levels of excitement. Bolstered by the new TV deal, NBA teams have enjoyed a massive increase in salary cap funds (the amount of money each team can spend on paying players) – the new cap for 2017 is expected to be somewhere around $102m, up from $70m for 2015-16. As such, teams have been able to chase more and more big names.
The most surprising move of the off-season (maybe of any off-season) was Kevin Durant joining Golden State. The capture of former Oklahoma City Thunder man Durant now sees the Warriors boast two of the league’s best three players (Durant & Steph Curry) and bolsters a squad which was good enough last season to have the best regular season of all time.
Viewing figures for the start of the NFL season have been down year-on year for 2016, something for which the Presidential election coverage has been blamed. This theory will be put to the test as the NBA returns, making legitimate claims to be America’s most must-see sports league. With the impact of the new TV deal already being felt, the historic agreement to allow jersey sponsorship on the horizon and eyes already moving to further pies into which the league can have its fingers, the NBA is seeing plenty of slam dunks on and off court.
Photo credit: Forbes.com, ABC News, Nike.com, bleacherreport.com