This has been the year of volatility in the NBA after COVID paused last season and shortened the regular season from seven months to only five. Needing to reach 72 games to meet local TV contract demands, Adam Silver and the NBA along with the NBA Player’s Association (NBAPA) made the decision to shove those 72 games into that 5 month window and let the chips fall where they may.
And those chips have scattered all over the board with some teams ending up in places Silver and company could never have imagined going into the year. Even with the Lakers and Celtics, two of the league’s premier franchises looking at 7 seeds and the play-in tournament, I can’t help but think Silver is smiling ear to ear with how the season is winding down.
Even in a typical regular season, slog is a term often used in the media to describe the dog days of the season as it winds down. The last quarter of the season after the trade deadline has passed has always been a lull; a grind for the players without the same spotlight and excitement surrounding the games. The newness of the fresh start at the beginning of the season has worn off and the excitement of the trade deadline passing meant most teams were done worrying much as the regular season wound down.
But with the play-in tournament both extending the field two extra spots but also putting the 7 and 8 spots in jeopardy, Adam Silver made races out of play-in seedings that have had been leading the headlines the past few weeks on ESPN with the Mavericks, Trailblazers, Lakers, Warriors, Heat, and Celtics were all considered high level teams that were potentially looking at being forced to win play-in game/games just to make it in the playoffs while other teams get to rest and for some of these teams that is going to be their reality.
Not only were they dominating the headlines on ESPN with the stakes of the play-in tournament (the NBA almost always dominates those this time of year) but they were also engaging the fanbases on social media as the pandemic continued to keep many people indoors the past month. And stirring up that interest in what is going on in the last month of the season is exactly what the league wanted to accomplish with this tournament.
Are People Talking about the Play-In?
Normally this time of year the draft lottery is getting most of the buzz when it comes to what NBA fanbases are paying the most attention to for their respective teams. You have one or two seeding positions that mattered each year, but for the most part once the trade deadline hit it was gearing up for your postseason run or seeing what your end of the bench guys can do to try and get a few extra ping pong balls bouncing your way come lottery time. But flattening the lottery odds in 2019 along with adding the two teams with playoff hopes with the play-in tournament has more teams invested longer than ever before.
The play-in tournament discussion has even overtaken the draft lottery discussion in recent weeks according to the Google trends with it jumping quite a bit this last week as the lottery slots were most decided while the play-in spots stayed up for grabs further into the regular season with the spike in the graph in interest below being the discussion surrounding LeBron James‘ comments about the play-in tournament and sustaining as the schedule has shrunk and each game means more towards the last ditch moment people are following.
How is Interest Compared to the Playoffs?
It’s great that there is some interest in the play-in tournament but that’s going to be a new term that doesn’t have a history to compare against. So I decided to dig a little bit further and look up the interest over time for the regular seasons and playoffs to see what the interest averaged over the last month of the regular season compared to the peak interest that year. With 2020 having the bubble season causing an extended time gap and not giving us the same fatigue from an unstopped regular season that fans will get watching for months straight without a covid induced extended break three quarters of the way through the season.
What I found from the data was that in the seasons where the NBA Finals winner (73-9 Warriors, Durant’s first and last Warriors seasons) seems to be inevitable whereas the seasons that wasn’t the case saw a small boost in interest as the regular season was winding down which makes sense but to see the data support the thought process always gives that sigh of relief that our eyes aren’t lying to us. But while I can remember the lull of previous years that the data says I wasn’t alone on, this year has been completely different.
Full disclosure, I’m a Chicago Bulls fan for those that don’t know. So when Zach LaVine broke out and we traded for Vuc at the deadline that was a huge moment for the franchise and a shot in the arm to a fanbase that has needed it. So when I first thought about this I just brushed it off as that post trade deadline glow of a team that now mattered and while probably a thing in the Bulls universe wasn’t as universal across the league. I was wrong.
As the playoffs haven’t happened yet this year I obviously couldn’t compare them to the peak interest from this upcoming offseason. And with the interest in the 2020 season overall being on the low end I went back to the 2018 peak playoff interest as the reference point to see how the interest this year has compared to the previous years. As you can see in the chart below, the initial results are promising for the play-in tournament helping drive interest in a time period that previously has been a down time for the league.
So what’s the Verdict: Success or Failure?
Now that’s a massive jump! Exactly what the NBA was hoping to see, using the 2018 peak interest point (the highest point of the last 4 NBA Finals) if the NBA can reach that same excitement level on Google’s search engine and still see this big of an increase heading into the playoffs is nothing short of extraordinary. Considering how down interest was for the playoffs last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that 37% actually increase a little unless the NBA gets even more good news and sees league wide interest reach a 5 year peak. Regardless though, it’s hard to argue against the fact that league wide interest heading into the playoffs is at an all-time high amongst fans across the league.
If this momentum can carry into the playoffs and carry the interest into the first round that would have to be seen as a massive win for the NBA. Seeing a massive jump in almost 12 percent from your highest peak interest heading into the postseason compared to that season’s overall would be a fantastic victory for the play-in tournament being viewed as a success and with the possibility of that number fluctuating depending on the interest of this year’s playoffs the trend is up for the NBA on the social media side of things.
The ultimate in small sample size, looking at the first instance is hard to call anything a slam dunk success without seeing if these numbers can sustain or if this is going to end up being an outlier year. Between the popularity of the teams hovering in the play-in spots and the shortened season making the games matter that much more there are a number of reasons this might not last. And while the interest on Google and social media is great, ratings are going to be even more important and seeing what the first round does compared to the last few years will be very interesting.
But my gut as an NBA fan says the play-in tournament is going to continue to drive interest and be seen as a huge success for years moving forward. Now hopefully the data will back me up on that.