A few ideas I had to improve the NBA, trying to address what I see are two problems: the lack of atmosphere in some arenas, and the lack of caring by some players and fans who don't have a chance to win a title in a given year.
First, a warning: this is a little long. I just kept writing, and the words kept coming out. I've tried to put headers and bullets in to make it as skim-able as possible. So, I'm sorry about that but hopefully the ideas are interesting to read!
Anyways, I wanted to write this because I had some suggestions for improving the NBA. These suggestions (and, despite the length of this piece, there are really only two of them) came from what I see as problems with the NBA as it now exists. The solutions, for the most part, come from soccer. While I know many Americans and NBA fans hate soccer, none of the ideas are actually borrowed from the SPORT of soccer - just the way soccer leagues are administered around the world. So hopefully all you basketball-lovers but soccer-haters can still look at the ideas with open minds.
And I should be clear: I love the NBA, and I love the Blazers. However, I think there are two general problems that make the NBA a less exciting and less-fun league to watch than it could be. After discussing the problems, I give my suggestions for how the Association might improve itself. I'd be interested to know what you thought about them.
But first, the problems.
1) There is a lack of atmosphere during some NBA games. While the arenas get going when the pressure is on late in the game and for playoff games, for blowouts and unimportant games there can often be silence from the fans. And teams try to solve this with pre-recorded video messages of "make some noise!" or a similar loud gimmick, which everyone seems to complain about. In other words, there is a lack of authentic fan-based cheering and support for teams within the arenas.
2) There is a lack of caring by teams and fans with no chance to win the title that year. Another way of stating the problem is that there is a stratification of the NBA with the teams that are in the lower bracket having little incentive to win (indeed, it might be in their interest for a race to the bottom to get a good draft pick). In fact, it's even hard to find an incentive for a team to try to make the playoffs if they know they will just lose within the first or second round.
1. To improve the atmosphere, there should be courtside fan sections
I noticed that the Blazers are doing something that could be similar this year, but I think their "fan section" is a little different than what I image. I think a fan section that is close to the action, offers cheap seats, but is only open to die-hard fans would greatly improve the atmosphere and the game in NBA arenas. I imagine fans on their feet all game, all wearing Blazer gear, and loudly cheering the team on. The fans should be by the court so they are visible to the players and TV cameras.
These types of sections are not without precedent. European basketball teams often have these types of fans. (For examples, check out these youtube videos here and here) While some of those fans go to the extreme (and, yes, there clearly is a line when throwing streamers and making noise distracts from the game itself), I think their authentic enthusiasm adds to the enjoyment of the game even by the casual fan. College basketball games are probably a closer example. Their student sections are usually close to the floor and take up "valuable" stadium real estate that could be more profitable as expensive seats for alumni, but the atmosphere and the team are greatly benefited by the presence of the die-hard, but broke, student fans. They jump, cheer and chant, and in the process make life hell for the visiting teams while making the game experience fun for the other fans in the building.
I don't think a "fan section" would be difficult to administer. There would be two problems: finding space for the section close to the court, and ensuring that only loud fans make it into the section (and God forbid an opposing fan made it into that section...)
As for the space, the last few times I have attended an NBA game I've noticed that there is a TON of empty space at both ends of the court by the baskets. Between the corner tunnels, room for photographers, expensive seats with waiter service, not wanting any of the expensive seats to have a bad view, and room for the cheerleaders to wait - there is just a lot of extra space that is going to waste. However I think teams don't use that space because it is hard to fit the big seats with the wide aisles that are needed for courtside seats. My idea: remove a few of the expensive seats from one end of the court and replace them with cheap bleacher seating for the die hard fans. Take advantage of the extra space that is currently going to waste to cram as many of those cheap, die hard fans into the end area. I know I certainly wouldn't mind being crowded if it meant I had a $25 courtside seat surrounded by my fellow noisy fans.
As for ensuring the ticket-holders are Blazer fans, I can think of three possible solutions off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are more.
1) First, the tickets could be administered through Blazer fan clubs. These fan-run groups would have an incentive to stay within the good graces of the Blazer organization (so that the cheap tickets keep coming) and could ensure that the tickets only go to legitimate Blazer fans. The "Timbers Army" is a great local example of a loosely-organized fan-run group that keeps close ties to the sports team they follow.
2) Second, the tickets could be issued, like the student tickets at college basketball games, only on game day on a first-come, first-served basis. Issuing the tickets as non-removable bracelets could insure that only those who wait in line actually get the tickets and get into the building. Anyone willing to spend the night outside the Rose Garden the day before a Lakers game should be able to create some great atmosphere from courtside.
3) And third, the tickets could be issued with the caveat that the holder can only get through the gates if they are dressed in Blazers gear / face paint / signs / etc. Again, I know I would be willing (and most Blazer fans I know would be willing) to dress in full red & black with signs, if that was what we had to do to get a $25 courtside ticket. Someone has a ticket to the fan section but is dressed in a suit? F' em.
With an enthusiastic "student section" courtside at the Rose Garden (or another NBA arena) I think teams will quickly make up for their loss in ticket revenue from the removal of a few courtside seats because of the increased excitement of the crowd. Even if I was not in that section, I would be more inclined to buy a ticket to a game if the crowd was going to be led by cheering supporters who stood for the entire game making noise than if the crowd only cheered when it was urged on by a paid announcer with some cheesy clip art graphic on the scoreboard. Die-hard fans screaming at the team and having their energy carry over to other fans = authentic and fun. A stunt team with signs that say "Go Blazers" = lame.
Moving on to solution #2....2. To make teams and their fans care more about the entire season, there should be more trophies available for NBA teams to win.
I've found one of the hardest aspects of soccer for my friends who are not soccer fans to understand is that most soccer teams, during the course of a season, are competing for multiple trophies. They have a main league which they try to win, but there are side games where the teams compete for other trophies - which can be either less important or more important depending on the competition.
To take a famous English soccer team as an example, Manchester United over the course of a season has the possibility of winning three major trophies: The Premier League title (the soccer league the team is in), the F.A. cup (an England-wide tournament that is open to every soccer team in the country, from professional teams to amateur sides), and the Champions League (a European-wide tournament open to the top teams from each country's league). Different fans think different trophies might be more important, but even if the team is doing poorly in one competition, it can still compete for the title in another competition. And of course, to win all three in one season is considered an amazing accomplishment. (I left out other, smaller, trophies: UEFA Cup, Supporter's Shield, etc., but they are very similar.)
Soccer teams in the US have a similar array of trophies: the league title (MLS/USL), the US Open Cup, SuperLiga, CONCACAF Champions Cup, Supporters Shield, etc.
There are two reasons why I think the multiple-trophy idea works:
1) First, there can be more than one "winner" in a season. Even dominant teams can have a bad game in a single-elimination tournament, or a bad few games, leaving other teams to fight for a trophy. Imagine how fun it would be during the Bulls' dominance in the 90's or the Lakers' dominance a few years ago to be able to snatch a trophy away from them? If the other competitions are decided by a different format than the NBA finals (for example, single elimination tournaments) than even teams without a shot at the Pat O'Brien trophy could pull off an upset for a more minor trophy.
2) Second, because the teams that make the major tournaments are decided by their standing in the league from the previous season, teams have an incentive to try to finish as high as they can, even if they've already clinched a playoff berth (or even if they are already eliminated from the playoffs). The season goes down to the wire, even if some teams have already guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, because they want to make it to a tournament next season.
I think the multiple-trophy idea should be extended to the NBA. Here are some ideas for secondary tournaments and trophies that could be incorporated into the NBA season:
-- A European / NBA tournament
The 4 top teams in the NBA and the 4 top teams in the Euroleague face off in a week-long tournament. The format could be short best-of-3 series, or maybe a round-robin format. It would be held in one city each year, alternating between a European city and an NBA city.
This is my favorite idea for a tournament, and I think it could be very exciting for fans and teams alike. The NBA has played against European teams in the pre-season, and while the NBA teams have been dominant, over the years the European competition has gotten significantly better and European teams have started defeating NBA teams. The NBA has always used "oh, we were in the pre-season" as an excuse for losing, and it would be exciting to see the teams play when every team is in mid-season form and there is a trophy and financial incentives on the line.
This would also be such an exciting tournament to attend as a fan. Assuming it is held in one city over the course of a little more than a week, fans from all 8 teams could come for a few days, or the entire week, to attend the games, meet in bars, and cheer on their teams. Imagine getting together with Blazer fans in Barcelona, Spain for a week to watch high-quality basketball - how cool would that be? Walking down La Rambla and waving at everyone in a Roy jersey? Or if the host city was New York one year and basketball fans from teams all over the US and Europe converged on the city for one week, and spent a week meeting people from all over the world and cheering on their respective team or country.
In my opinion, that could be the best week in basketball.
-- Latin America/ NBA tournament
Similar to the European tournament, but the top teams from the NBA would face off against the top teams from Central and South America. This tournament might be less feasible because the competition from teams in Latin America does not seem to be at the same level of European teams. However with more and more NBA players coming from countries such as Argentina and Brazil, it could still be an exciting tournament and in a few years there might be more challenging competition.
The top teams in the NCAA tournament and the top teams from the NBA face off in a weekend single-game elimination tournament. I've always wondered how well the best college teams could do in the NBA, and this would be a chance to put it to the test. And with players on NBA teams playing against their old school, or their old school's rival, the storylines would be great. The format could be the best 12 NBA teams from the previous season and the 4 college teams that made it to the final four arranged in a Sweet Sixteen-style bracket with single elimination.
-- Regional Tournaments
These could be separate tournaments held over the same long weekend. Anywhere from 3 - 7 or so teams, structured so as to keep regional rivalries intense. As an example, maybe the Blazers could play in a Northwest tournament with the Sonics and the Jazz. The tournament could take a variety of formats, but it would be held in one city over a long weekend, with the host city rotating between the teams in the tournament.
Again, this has the possibility of being very exciting for fans because the tournament would be close to (or in) their hometown, and would give their team a realistic shot of winning the trophy. Let's say one year the Northwest tournament is in Seattle. Blazer fans could, en masse, make a fun weekend out of it and drive up to Seattle for a weekend of meeting people in bars, watching games in the arena, and just having fun with basketball fans around the city. Not to mention cheering the team on for regional dominance.
These four tournaments are merely examples, and probably having all of them would be overkill. But imagine that each year there was the Euro/NBA tourney, the Pro-Am, and the regional tourney. That would give an NBA team the chance to, at most, win 4 trophies a year (including the NBA finals trophy). The eventual NBA champion might have an off-week and even dominant teams could be overturned in a small tournament. And since every team would be in a regional tournament, even teams without a shot of making the playoffs could have a shot at winning a trophy - giving the players and their fans more to play and root for.
Additionally, because admittance to the bigger tournaments (e.g., Euro/NBA) would be based on the previous season's record, a team's performance in the regular season would mean more. Instead of just home court advantage in the first round, it becomes a race at the end of the season to see which team will be lucky enough to play in Europe for a chance to win the trophy. Financial incentives (such as sharing the TV revenues from the additional games) could also be added to give the team executives a reason to try to make the tournaments. More incentives = more pressure = better games.
I don't think the extra tournaments would have trouble fitting into the NBA schedule. Right now the schedule is packed from November through April, but that is only because teams don't have anything else to focus on during the season.
For example, let's say the NBA season will span the same length of time, but 10 games will be removed (down to 72 games). There will be three breaks for the tournaments. The first break could be for 5 days over a weekend in early December for the regional tournaments. The second could be a longer break of 2 weeks in early February. During these two weeks the Euro/NBA tournament could happen first, and then the NBA All-Star game could be on the last weekend of the break. The second half of the season would pick up after the long winter break, and then the last tournament (the Pro-Am), could be over another 5-day, long-weekend break. Due to the college schedule, that would probably be best as the first weekend of April.
The breaks would not ruin the NBA season. Instead they would add variety and spice up the season, even for fans of teams who weren't in the tournament. Not only would they be able to watch great basketball, but their teams (who were not in a certain tournament) would have a chance to get some rest and practice - and that will help them compete against the teams that were playing in the tournament.
In conclusion, I'm sorry this "proposal" took so many words, but I think the NBA is currently being limited by two problems which make the games less exciting for fans than they could be. A few solutions could solve the problems and make the Association a lot more fun.
What do you think? I'd be interested to know people's reactions and comments on my suggestions. Also, I did absolutely no research when I wrote this (other than finding those euro-fan videos), so I have no idea if similar ideas have been proposed before. Has anyone suggested similar changes to the NBA?