The Evolution of the NBA

The NBA is at a turning point. Its players have embraced the notion of being progressive social-political leaders and the league’s media has a more open mind on race than it did in the seventies, when high-profile incidents of police brutality rocked the sport. And yet, when it comes to the very real issues of racism, inequality and oppression that pervade society — not just in America but around the world — the N.B.A. has walked a fine line between the brutality of the NFL, which is in its DNA, and the staid nostalgia of baseball.

With a roster of teams spread out across the country, N.B.A. officials figured the best way to attract people to arenas and fill seats was to bring more action to the game. So they introduced the clock, an invention that sped up play and made it more entertaining to watch.

But the era of the clock also brought about other changes, some good and others not so much. Suddenly, the pace of games was too fast for many fans. The fans were bored. The league had a problem and needed to fix it.

In 1955, the N.B.A. added five new franchises and moved to a conference system where the teams play all other members in their division twice a year, once at home and once on the road. The idea was to increase the number of games played and attract more television viewers.

As the number of games grew, it became clear that the N.B.A. was losing fans and revenues. Attendance in arenas was declining and TV ratings were dropping, putting the league on the verge of collapse.

A few years later, the NBA was saved from a complete collapse by its most famous commissioner, David Stern, who introduced a salary cap and a draft to slow down player spending, boost the quality of the league and restore public interest in the sport.

The league’s newest initiative is an in-season tournament called the NBA Cup, which starts this November and will have eight teams compete in group stages, with each team playing two home and away games. The top-ranked teams will then enter single-elimination knockout rounds, including a championship game. All the group-stage games will count toward regular-season standings.

The league hopes to attract a younger audience with the tournament and align itself with a post-Covid world. Silver has also promised to re-evaluate the NBA’s game presentations and is working on an international streaming deal with Tencent, China’s largest online video platform. The partnership could be a major boost for the NBA’s revenue, but the league will have to tread carefully as it moves into an increasingly complicated business landscape. A tamed press corps that doesn’t question the integrity of its information ecosystem is just fine by the league, but it’s also an obstacle to holding the N.B.A. accountable or covering it from a business or investigative angle.