LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game against the LA Clippers at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 30, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images
The National Basketball Association’s biggest star is not happy with the current state of the league.
LeBron James used social media this week to express his frustration over the injuries the NBA is suffering in the 2021 postseason. Superstar players like James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and James’ teammate Anthony Davis suffered serious injuries during the NBA’s 72-game campaign and postseason. James suggested on his Twitter posts that the decision to start the 2020-21 season last Christmas is the culprit.
Without proper recovery, players can fall victim to soft tissue injuries due to muscle overuse. The wear and tear was one reason the NBA was considering starting a new season in January, perhaps on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after ending the 2019-20 season last October due to the pandemic.
James used Twitter to apologize to NBA fans who missed the star players, including himself, when the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns. And Davis’s injury could have cost him a chance at replay. James then tweeted:
But the “business side” is the real culprit. James is part of the NBA and had to be saved to protect media rights.
Money rules everything
In NBA circles, few agree with James and find that his points are valid, although some indicate grandstanding. Again James is out of the playoffs and staying in the spotlight, especially with his new “Space Jam” movie on the horizon, can only help.
Still, James has the power to complain about NBA matters on social platforms and few in the league office will publicly challenge him.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass defended the league’s stance on the issue in a statement, noting that injury rates “this season have been virtually the same as the 2019-20 season, due to starter and all-star player games missed prizes from injuries like in the last three seasons. “
Looking back on the NBA’s decision to return so quickly, a league manager pointed to the future impact of the NBA’s media rights.
AT & T’s Disney and WarnerMedia pay the NBA about $ 2 billion a year, and the Christmas package is a prime asset for advertisers to take advantage of. Hence, it would be costly to lose those games that day. When the NBA wasn’t playing, the networks would be distributing make-ware to marketers. That means networks would provide additional ad inventory to make up for the missed opportunity.
Also, because of the lost content, networks could ask for discounts on fees they pay the NBA. And when the time to renegotiate comes, they’ll calculate the losses and cut the NBA’s money. And when that happened, the league would eventually feel the financial pain.
The NBA will aim for a significant increase in rights, perhaps up to $ 75 billion, when their deal is finalized after the 2024-25 season. So it’s risky to sacrifice content and lose fan engagement. And the league was already missing 40 percent of its income without fans in arenas due to the pandemic. Therefore, it knew the consequences and valued the health of its company more than James’ concerns.
“[The NBA] allowed the networks to say, ‘We can afford to give you a lot more if you start earlier,’ “said Charles Grantham, former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
The players lost about 20% of their salary due to the shortened season. That could have jumped to 25% if the NBA had started 62 games in January. Not many players can afford this loss or have James’ resources to sustain their lifestyles.
James has made over $ 340 million in NBA contracts over the course of his career, including $ 39 million this season, the sixth highest in the league. If you include the $ 65 million annually in memos, the total compensation goes up even further, according to Forbes.
The average salary for an NBA player for the 2020-21 season was $ 7.4 million. And of around 513 contracts, only 20 players earned more than $ 30 million, according to basketball-reference.com.
Spectators are too important
But Grantham, now director of the sports management program at Seton Hall, agreed with James’ frustration. He noted that the team owners used panic, mainly the force majeure clause, which threatened to decimate the NBA’s collective agreement with the players.
Grantham then pointed out the team values staying afloat during Covid-19 and asked why players should suffer losses. The Utah Jazz sold for $ 1.6 billion after the NBA’s bubble season ended last year. And in March, the Minnesota Timberwolves agreed to sell it for a little over $ 1 billion.
The NBA has loved to brag about rising team values since Steve Ballmer inflated the market with the purchase of the Clippers in 2014. Before that, few were interested in buying an NBA team, notes respected marketing director Tony Ponturo. But players’ unions do not get any of the money from these franchise transactions.
When asked if NBA owners would have sacrificed the CBA – and the team’s values - if players resisted a return in December, Grantham replied, “I don’t think the owners would have done it.”
And on the side of the networks: “Advertisers would adapt,” said Ponturo. “It was great for the NBA and the broadcasters to host the Christmas Games, but with the NFL going strong, the advertisers would be fine.”
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James holds his ankle after falling to the ground with an injury in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, March 20, 2021 in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP photo
Part of the frustration comes from telling players that a December return will initially be off the table. And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put January back on the market last September when Covid-19 was still spreading. The thing is, the networks know that consumers rarely watch TV in the summer. And especially this year, fighting the Tokyo Olympics isn’t cheap for the league, ESPN or Turner Sports.
So the NBA has swerved, and it may have saved its audience numbers.
Overall, the NBA averaged 1.3 million viewers during its national games on ESPN, ABC and TNT this season. Media managers believe these numbers are in decline. But while injuries play a role, the number of viewers has increased in the more profitable postseason – at least the first round.
The league said it averaged around 3 million viewers in the first round, up 3% from the 2019 postseason. And the NBA play-in tournament helped fans get into the playoffs. James and his NBA colleague Steph Curry averaged 5.6 million for the Lakers play-in game against Golden State Warriors. It was the most watched competition on ESPN since the 2019 Western Conference round.
When the audience numbers are strong, the networks pay more. Now the NBA should be hoping for a big market final match, as a match between Milwaukee Bucks and Jazz wouldn’t exactly be a tie.
But without James, younger stars, including Atlanta Hawks Guard Trae Young, are helping the NBA stay relevant. The Philadelphia 76ers are on the verge of collapse in Doc Rivers’ first year. The Phoenix Suns are a success story. Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks are a mess. And Durant keeps the fans in line.
Even James noticed Durant’s performance in Game 5 against the Bucks.
The NBA, though more profitable and exciting with James, survives without him. Injuries are always a nuisance, and fans prefer playing the stars. But this is entertainment and the show goes on. The next season should help, however. The warriors will be back; James and the Lakers too.
Most importantly, stars have normal time to rest and recover when they return to business.