In keeping with its reputation as the most progressive sports league in the nation, the NBA tapped its streetball roots, having captains select the All-Star rosters, as if LeBron and Steph were on a Philly blacktop in July, picking squads on 10th and Lombard. Commissioner Adam Silver followed up by positioning the NBA to be a partner in what appears to be inevitable: legalized pro sports betting.
The NBA argued to lawmakers in New York recently that if the Supreme Court eases the path to legalized gambling, the NBA and all sports leagues should be entitled to 1 percent of the profits. When players get involved with gambling, they’re called cheaters or compromised. When the league sanctions it, it’s trustworthy. The NBA even has a name for it, calling it an “integrity fee.” True story.
The NBA’s All-Star Game and its gaming initiative, however, represent much more than a league trying to keep its marriage with fans fresh. The ground is shifting across sports. The game you’re watching now will not be the game of tomorrow because the sports bubble, long propped up by nostalgia, tradition and enormous television rights fees, isn’t going to last.
You need to look beyond the short-term and sensational to see the big picture emerging. The NFL season was dominated by the effect of player protests on ratings, but flag-waving NASCAR’s numbers have been dropping like a stone for years. It’s not politics, it’s tedium. The games — and the events and noise that surround them — feel less special because there are more of them in a shorter calendar. More hasn’t felt like more — and unless you’re the soaring NBA, the prospect of even more people turning away is real.
Of course, leagues have no one to blame but themselves for their crisis, for they chose greed and saturation. Amazon reportedly paid $50 million to stream NFL Thursday night games in 2017. Baseball’s postseason kicks off not with home runs but with fans trying to find which channel has the game — maybe the World Series will one day be on Hulu. The leagues are prospecting. They know the fan bubble is bursting, and the key is finding out what delivery methods will emerge and what new revenue streams, such as gambling, will be required to offset the changes — and at what cost to the integrity of the sport.
What no one knows is which — if any — league will guess right. Who, for example, really believed people would watch other people play video games on television? But it makes sense that the best way to take the violence out of football isn’t to change the rules but to remove the people. Welcome, Madden esports. Meanwhile, football, despite its $13 billion revenue stream in 2016, found out in 2017 after a season of too many games during the week, too many lousy games, too many injuries and possibly too much political volatility that, believe it or not, there are other things to do besides watching sports.
Baseball, meanwhile, sees the writing on the wall that says the game just might be too slow for today’s generation of screen swipers. Frustrated by the union and fearful of being late to the future, owners are about to unilaterally impose additional methods to speed up games. The automatic intentional walk is here, as is the clock between innings. The pitch clock and ghost runner on second base (in the All-Star Game) are next, as is a seismic revision of its foundation: a radical proposal that would, after 117 years of coexistence, eliminate the American and National leagues as we know them in favor of an expansion and a geographical realignment that would create leagues based essentially on time zone. The AL vs. NL World Series could be replaced by East vs. West.
Also attuned to the dubious attention span of the next-gen consumer is tennis, which seems to believe six games in a set is too taxing in between Instagram posts and is introducing Fast4 Tennis into exhibitions. No thanks.
Leagues are wisely concluding they aren’t invincible, and while some of the proposed innovations feel like a combination of panic (nothing freaks out suits like feeling unhip) and greed (the willingness to expose themselves to corruption if there’s a new revenue stream), too many sports are searching for reinvention for it to be coincidence.
The big leagues need to remember one thing to take the threat of change seriously: There was a time when the unquestioned biggest games in town were … baseball and boxing. Imagine that.