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Is an NBA Midseason Tournament Inevitable?

Last Updated: August 3, 2021
“Midseason form” may take on a whole new meaning as NBA officials discuss an eight-team, single-elimination tournament with millions in prize money.

On the heels of a successful Play-in Tournament that proved more than just promising despite skepticism from players, owners, and pundits alike, whispers about further changes to the NBA’s season format are getting louder.

Word of the league’s renewed interest in launching some manner of midseason tournament, first reported by ESPN, comes as the WNBA is poised to hold a new competition of its own this season, the Commissioner’s Cup.

This tournament would be a natural addition to the NBA’s integration of more competitive incentives to its schedule over the course of the last several years, best exemplified to date this year’s wildly popular play-in games.

NBA Aims to Ride Ratings Wave into Renewed Tourney Talks

Viewership numbers for each of the six 2021 Play-in Tournament games were coup for the NBA. Some of the games hit ratings milestones, providing an extra jolt ahead of the postseason.

In fact, the matchup featuring LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers narrowly beating out scoring champ Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors for the No. 7 seed in the West delivered the best overall NBA rating since the 2019 playoffs.

The matchup additionally topped last season’s bubble play-in game on ABC by 190%.

So, with the Play-in Tournament proving to be a major boon to the NBA’s beleaguered regular season television viewership, Commissioner Adam Silver now wants to leverage that success to re-engage teams and players about a new midseason tournament, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

That pursuit comes with a few challenges, however.

What a Midseason Tournament Means for Teams and Players

While details of how this tournament would work have yet to be officially proposed, the league reportedly wants an “eight-team single-elimination tournament that would be incentivized with $1 million per player payouts to the winning team,” per Woj’s report.

It’s understood that the concept would not be ready to roll in time for the 2021-22 campaign, but could happen the following season.

The prospective tournament, “The Stern Cup,” would effectively allow the NBA to reduce the number of regular season games from the typical 82 in favor of the new (and arguably much more exciting) midseason competition.

But despite the added excitement around a new tournament and the potential benefits related to economics and fan engagement, the framework could also create a scenario where franchises — some of whom aren’t strictly flush with cash thanks to COVID shortfalls — end up losing out on much-needed gate revenue they would have otherwise received from a full slate of 41 home games.

It could also face real resistance from players.

Will Players Push Back Against the Stern Cup?

What happens when it comes time to play the mid-season tournament and players aren’t happy? Will top teams or star players purposefully avoid (or tank) the tournament in favor of a midseason vacation?

The NBA already felt the wrath of vocal players who weren’t thrilled with having to play their way into the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. Will it be able to get fans excited with a buzzworthy midseason tournament while keeping players happy at the same time?

While all of the finer details must be worked out at the bargaining table and approved by the NBA Board of Governors and the players union, murmurs from star players have already started.

They’re not likely to get quieter with the passing of time.

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