The NBA is in the midst of an unprecedented boom that has made it one of the world’s most popular sports leagues. But it wasn’t always that way. The league used to be a footnote next to the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Now it’s trying to sell itself as the progressive and youthful alternative to those two stodgy behemoths. And it is succeeding — in part by leaning into the political issues that are bubbling up around the country.
For example, this year the NBA introduced the In-Season Tournament. The competition consists of 14 group games and seven knockout rounds. The games will be televised nationally on ESPN and TNT and, for international viewers, on NBA League Pass. The top team in each group will advance to the second round, where they will face the best team from a different group. The winner of that series will then advance to the final, where a champion will be crowned.
This tournament is designed to give the league an early ratings boost and it appears to have done just that. But it’s also a way for the NBA to show that it is willing to take risks to make its league more appealing to younger fans. And to compete with other sports leagues that are catering to the same demographic.
Unlike those other leagues, the NBA has a lot of flexibility in how it markets itself. Star players can make hundreds of millions of dollars and can largely choose where they want to play after their rookie contracts are over. And the league can air its games on streaming services like Amazon’s Prime and Apple’s new service, Peacock, which has 24 million subscribers — less than Disney’s ESPN+ or Warner Bros’s Discovery Max, but still plenty of eyeballs. And there are countless podcasts, YouTube channels and TikTok accounts dedicated to NBA highlights.
As a result, the NBA is in a unique position to make money from all of this. It can flex its muscles to attract the biggest names, which it did by signing James Harden and Kyrie Irving in the past two seasons. And it can sign a big deal with a sovereign wealth fund, which it has already done with China’s ANTA.
But the NBA must balance its willingness to be a player in the political arena against its desire to maximize revenue by restricting the number of broadcast, cable and streaming partners it signs up. And it’s not clear whether the league will be able to get Apple or any other company to pay a big premium for rights to its games. That’s because those other companies — particularly Amazon — have already proven they can deliver large audiences for live events. But that might change if Apple or another service makes a big push to acquire a big stake in the league. That could make the NBA more willing to sell off smaller packages to companies like Apple and Netflix.