NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?

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The experiment to inject jeopardy into the November and December months of basketball – a long-held ambition of NBA commissioner Adam Silver – culminates this weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the T-Mobile Arena.

NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?
NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?

All 30 NBA franchises were placed into six groups of five teams at the beginning of the season based on last year’s records for the In-Season Tournament (IST).

Similar to European soccer tournaments, teams competed in a “Group Play” stage, with the group winners and two “wild cards” advancing to the “Knockout Round,” beginning with the quarterfinals which began on December 4. After the dust settled, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers emerged as the final two teams and are now set to contest the inaugural NBA Cup scheduled for Saturday.

The idea behind the tournament was to create a formula to keep the players competitive and get the fans engaged.

The league even unveiled 30 new court designs for the event, with home teams also sporting their newly designed “City Edition” uniforms.

“We wanted the In-Season Tournament games to jump off the screen and immediately grab fans’ attention and felt like the bold colors of the courts accomplished that,” Chris Arena, the NBA’s head of on-court brand partnerships, told reporters.

The league is nearing the end of a nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports (now known as TNT Sports) – TNT Sports is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, as is CNN – and the next deal is projected to be worth more than double that amount.

However, over the last few years, the ratings for the league have been anti-climactic, plateauing across ABC, ESPN and TNT Sports.

NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?
NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?

For the 2022-23 season, the numbers dropped for both the regular season and for the NBA Finals, which suffered a 6% dip from 2022.

But for the IST’s “Group Play” stage, there was an average of 1.5 million viewers, a 26% increase in games watched across ESPN and TNT compared to November games from last season.

Local television saw a 20% rise in viewership and watch time on League Pass was up 25%, both compared to November dates from last year.

The NBA App, along with the league’s social media channels, had its best November to date, with the digital accounts seeing 3.9 billion video views.

TNT’s broadcast of the quarterfinal matchup between the Phoenix Suns and the Lakers saw an increase of 89% compared to last season’s window, averaging 1.97 million views.

Additionally, more people are physically going to the games. The league’s November attendance average marked the highest amount ever recorded for the month, at 18,206 people.

Meanwhile, players who were once skeptical are now motivated and eager to take home the new NBA Cup.

“In the beginning, we didn’t really know what it was, we just knew that money was on the line,” Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard told reporters ahead of his team’s quarterfinal clash with the New York Knicks.

“Then, over the course of time, I think everybody’s just owning it more and more, and now, it’s turned into real entertainment, real competitive basketball. We’re playing for something.”

NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?
NBA’s In-Season Tournament experiment reaches finale in Sin City. Has it worked?

Quarterfinals participants made $50,000 and the players on the teams which bowed out in the semifinals earned $100,000 for their appearance.

Players of the losing team in Saturday’s final will make $200,000 each, while the IST winners are set to receive a team trophy, individual medals and each player will be awarded $500,000 for winning the title.

The IST has also helped the league market players from lower-visibility teams, such as Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton.

Haliburton has stood out during the tournament for his performances and continued his brilliance in the Pacers’ 128-119 surprise semifinal win over the Bucks on Thursday night.

Haliburton, who didn’t have a turnover for the second straight game, finished with 27 points and 15 assists in the victory that clinched a spot in the IST championship game on Saturday.

“[The] In-Season Tournament has already created NBA monoculture moments with the national TV single-game windows,” The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov posted on X, formerly Twitter.

NBA commentator Rob Perez also posted on X: “Pacers were scheduled for 1 national tv game (ABC/TNT/ESPN) this season before their IST run. Haliburton + the franchise gets huge brand exposure they wouldnt have had w/o this success.”

What started off as an odd experiment to most players in the league and die-hard fans around the globe, the IST now looks like it could be around for years to come with both the stars and audiences going all-in.

The league invested a lot of time, brainpower and money into the rollout of the IST and the gamble appears to have paid off.

The NBA Cup final will take place at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN2 on Saturday.

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