The NBA is going all out to get its fans to fall in love with its new In Season Tournament (Tournament) where the winner will be awarded the NBA Cup. Lots of folks are scratching their heads and wondering why the NBA is doing this. The reason is that the NBA is the best run and marketed sport organization in the world and at the forefront of innovation and there is a method to their madness.
Creating the Tournament is a smart move and a low risk proposition other than the money spent marketing and promoting the Tournament. The league has simply converted regularly season games to Tournament games during the least important part of the NBA season. If this Tournament doesn’t catch on with the NBA’s marketing muscle behind it, it never will or could. I remember attending the announcement for the Tournament in Las Vegas at NBA Con during NBA Summer League. It was an extravagant press event with ESPN talent and NBA stars, including Victor Wembanyama, in attendance. The event was like a massive pep rally complete with a New Year’s Eve ball drop ceremony leading up to the announcement made by Commissioner Adam Silver.
This morning Silver was a guest on ABC’s Good Morning America (GM). ABC is owned by Disney, one of the NBA’s most important media partners and the first games of the In Season Tournament were broadcast on ESPN. Silver went to great length to explain the format of the Tournament beginning with pool play, a knockout round, with the final four teams traveling to Las Vegas in early December to play for the NBA Cup. He effectively answered their softball questions and compared the Tournament to the “in season” tournaments that have gone on for years in soccer. He also compared the Tournament to early-season tournaments in college basketball and of course alluded to the Final Four as the culmination of the NBA’s March Madness Tournament. Silver closed by explaining that the Tournament games will be played on distinctive floors designed specifically for the Tournament. The players will also be wearing specially designed uniforms—all to give the Tournament unique branding.
In order to promote this new property the NBA has created a huge marketing campaign fueled by featuring a promotional video called “The Heist” patterned after the film Oceans Eleven, a movie set in Las Vegas. It even has its own theme song with LL Cool J and the Roots re-imagining the 90s hit “Mamma Said Knock You Out”.
The End Game: Build A Valuable New Media Property
If successful, the Tournament could add some welcome fire power to the NBA’s upcoming media negotiations central to the future financial growth of the league. Audience reach and growth is everything in building value in live sports and that is the NBA’s strategy behind creating this new property and hoping it will become appointment TV. This requires athletes that the fans love competing for a prize that these athletes desperately want to win. To put in perspective, think of the difference between a meaningless game in the standings and a game that will determine the NBA title. Even though the same players may be competing in both games, fan interest is measurably different.
The question is how important this Tournament will ultimately be to the players when compared to winning an NBA championship. Think of those iconic photos of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in tears holding their NBA Championship trophy. In the last analysis the reaction of the players will be the true test of how much fans will care about this new property. There have been a number of suggestions how to level up the importance of the NBA Cup to the players such as giving the winning team an automatic playoff berth, although that might not mean much to a team that would likely qualify for the playoffs anyway. Perhaps the winning team could be guaranteed home court advantage for the entire playoffs.
During the first night of games ESPN was furiously promoting the Tournament. Their on air talent could not have been more enthusiastic. I watched with some fans just to see their reaction. Many of them were annoyed by the flashy court designs and uniforms. That is expected with anything new, but at least they noticed. Sometimes initial negative reaction can change give way to acceptance over time.
The jury is still out on this and we’ll have a better idea after the Final Game in Las Vegas in December when one team hoists the newly minted NBA Cup. If we see tears in the eyes of the winning team we’ll know the Tournament has achieved true success.