How to improve basketball

by on October 29, 2009 at 12:37 pm in Sports | Permalink

Tim Miano writes to me:

I am a longtime MR reader. I have a hypothesis about how basketball could be much more exciting, and I can't for the life of me figure out why people who are into sports haven't widely considered it (as least as far as I know).

Here is my simple thought: games should be played as best 4 out of 7 periods — perhaps 7 minutes each or perhaps slightly varied period lengths, 6 – 8 minutes long. Maybe the number or usage of timeouts or foul-outs would need to be fiddled with. Maybe playoffs would be slightly different. But that's pretty much it. The best part of a basketball game is almost always the last few minutes, and it seems like the incentives for exciting play would persist more throughly under this design. Teams would need more endurance and deeper benches, but that seems like a good thing. Other than obsoleting old records and the tradition of the game, I can't think of any downside. Maybe marginal cost v. marginal benefit, à la owners/players wouldn't extract much more money from fans but would have to work harder? Maybe the length of games would vary too much for broadcasters to be happy? But still, a *much* more exciting game.

My Hansonian observation is that fans seem to prefer basketball seasons with a dominant player (Jordan) or perhaps a dominant match-up (the old Lakers vs. Celtics rivalries).  For the season as a whole, we don't seem to want too much suspense.  Does suspense distract us?  Are we really more interested in multi-tasking?  Or does suspense make it harder to affiliate with the idea of truly skilled and noble players?  If we are suspicious about having too much "suspense" across the course of the season (call it parity, if you wish), might we be suspicious about having too much suspense in the course of a single game?

What's so great about suspense anyway?

Here is Jeff Ely on related issues.

Ryan Vann October 29, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Popularity in most sports always seems to peak when a great player is hyped and marketed into almost mythological proportions. One prime example is Mike Tyson and boxing. Jordan is another example; though his hype had more merit than Tyson’s. In football, you have/had Tom Brady.

Bernard Yomtov October 29, 2009 at 12:57 pm

What’s so damn “Hansonian” about that observation? It’s pretty clear that there is a benefit to pro sports when there is a focal team or player (Yankees, Tiger Woods) or two. Similarly, any observer of college sports knows that intrastate rivalries, and a few others, draw a disproportionate amount of attention. These things create a simple story line (often David-Goliath) that attracts marginal fans who aren’t really deeply interested in the game. The trick is getting the balance right.

That said, I like Miano’s suggestion, though maybe two out of three would be better. Basketball does tend to be tedious until near the end.

Bernard Yomtov October 29, 2009 at 1:08 pm

What’s so damn “Hansonian” about all this?

Popularity in most sports always seems to peak when a great player is hyped and marketed into almost mythological proportions. One prime example is Mike Tyson and boxing. Jordan is another example; though his hype had more merit than Tyson’s. In football, you have/had Tom Brady.

True. Tiger Woods is another example. In general, it’s clear that pro sports benefit when there is a focal team or player (Yankees, Woods). This creates a story line (often David-Goliath) that draws in marginal fans who otherwise have no deep interest in the game. The trick is getting the balance right. Too much dominance and t he game is boring – a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.

Also, the lure of rivalries is obvious to anyone who follows college sports, where intrastate rivalries and a few others attract disproportionate attention. (Or consider Fischer-Spassky).

efp October 29, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I always thought they should start both teams with 80 points and play for two minutes. Maybe three.

derek October 29, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I don’t think this would be good. First, the first quarter is usually kind of sloppy and ugly because players are not fully warmed up; I would hate for this to actually matter. Second, let’s say that there is a close game, but one team outscores the other team for the whole beginning of the game. The remaining 3/7 of the game is garbage time. In the NBA, it is not until the last 2 minutes that we really hit garbage time for a 10 point lead (and even then comeback are quite possible).

Bob Murphy October 29, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I think they should make it so players can kick the ball too. Other than messing with past records and tradition, I see no downside.

Justin Martyr October 29, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I have a theory which holds that the best spectator sports are those which have many well-developed peaks and valleys in intensity. Call it the Alps theory of sports. In sabermetric and financial jargon, people like leverage. But people also like a build up in leverage and then a release from the intensity. Think about a scoring drive in football or a rally in baseball. Each of those sports has a 6 or 8 mini-peaks in intensity prior to the end of the game.

Soccer and hockey arguable claim this as well, but their peaks are too short and punctuated. It takes 15 minutes to have a big rally in baseball. A scoring drive in football is usually even longer. But the rally that leads to a high intensity in soccer in hockey is perhaps only ten or twenty seconds long.

john October 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Interest in sports is governed by the law of inertia: a person interested in a sport tends to stay interested in that sport. This force impedes change.

Ryan Vann October 29, 2009 at 2:21 pm

“PS- Why Tom Brady and not Peyton Manning? (Okay, okay, maybe it’s just because I’m from Indiana.)”

I’d even throw Big Ben in the mix. Football has more room for stars by sheer number of positions. With that said, I think the amount of positions, and the level of specialization of each position sort of dilutes the star power any one player can have. Even with a great QB, you aren’t going to win titles if your line is sub-par and your skills positions aren’t very good. For example, I doubt any of the three QBs mentioned would win 50% of their games if they were with Detroit. Even Jordan (though he was old as dirt at the time) couldn’t do much with the Wizards, and that’s just 4 other positions he needed to worry about.

Ryan Vann October 29, 2009 at 2:32 pm

“I have a theory which holds that the best spectator sports are those which have many well-developed peaks and valleys in intensity. Call it the Alps theory of sports. In sabermetric and financial jargon, people like leverage. But people also like a build up in leverage and then a release from the intensity. Think about a scoring drive in football or a rally in baseball. Each of those sports has a 6 or 8 mini-peaks in intensity prior to the end of the game.”

I think your theory applies to Americans, but Soccer sort mucks it up. Soccer is pretty much the epitome of building to a peak moment, as goal per game stats would indicate. The problem, and one of the reasons I can’t watch the sport, is the lack of mini-peaks (plus I need a level of violence in my sports, thus my preference of boxing, MMA, wrestling, football, rugby and its variants).

Basically you spend 90 minutes to watch 2 goals or so scored, and a few missed attempts. Yet, Soccer is huge pretty much everywhere that isn’t the US.

anon October 29, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Similarly, any observer of college sports knows that intrastate rivalries, and a few others, draw a disproportionate amount of attention.

I live in VA and don’t watch or follow any college football. But last month when William & Mary beat UVA 26-14, I knew about it within minutes and was very excited by the result.

I always thought they should start both teams with 80 points and play for two minutes. Maybe three

The Twitterization of basketball?

Andrew October 29, 2009 at 2:53 pm

As it is every play is important as long as the game is in contention.

They may actually work less hard once a period seems out of reach.

I think this is called baseball.

Ed October 29, 2009 at 3:07 pm

This points to what is a real problem with basketball. You turn on a game (note that games are not broadcast as often now), and its the beginning of the fourth quarter, and a typical score might be 85-76. But in one quarter a team can easily make up a 9 point deficit. Maybe the score is 85-52, but then who wants to keep watching a blowout? Really, the first three quarers of play seem to do nothing but establish whether the game will be a blowout or whether the fourth quarter will matter. And in the latter case, just watch the fourth quarter.

I had a similar idea. The first team to win three quarters wins the game. If a team wins each of the first three quarters, they win, the fourth quarter isn’t even played. If both teams win two of the first four quarters, then there is a fifth quarter to determine who wins three and who wins the game. The result is the same, every quarter matters. And blowout games at least get finished early.

John Thacker October 29, 2009 at 3:19 pm

My Hansonian observation is that fans seem to prefer basketball seasons with a dominant player (Jordan) or perhaps a dominant match-up (the old Lakers vs. Celtics rivalries).

The NBA prefers that too, apparently.

Let them eat Thomas Paine October 29, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Suspense makes truly great players easy to identify. A player that consistently hits big shots becomes immortal (or at least remembered), but your whole post is pointless since it revolves around the NBA.

The NBA (NFL, too) is stupid. The main reason the NFL is better than the NBA is because the season is shorter, but all this is moot. College will always be better in both respective sports. Rivalries (suspense?) make sports and college is naturally predisposed to rivalries. Close geographic proximity leads to student bodies that tend to hail from the same areas and high schools; also, students are more into games, or at least more vocal, than your typical 30+ year old. Atmosphere plays a massive role in how enjoyable a game is. The only time professional sports are better than college sports are when athletes are allowed to play right out of high school (a la MLB, NHL, Soccer). This makes the talent disparity too great between the two respective divisions of the sport.

Also, Virginia college basketball is the best. Mason-JMU, Old Dominion-VCU, and VT-UVA are all awesome rivalries. Of these six teams Mason is the best and since VA basketball is the best, Mason is the best in the country. Season starts in two weeks…. can.not.wait.

Tom October 29, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Interestingly, NBA popularity seems to be linked to periods where there are one or a couple, but not too many, excellent individual players. This is, I believe, relatively well-supported by the last 35 years or so, between the Bird-Magic era, following into Jordan and then the post-Jordan years.

Baseball, contrary to what your normally hear, has tended to not do well in terms of attendance or ratings when a single team (the Yankees) has done well (that the extended 1949-60 Yankees run forced the Giants and Dodgers out of NY seems fairly clear from the attendance records). The semi-exception to that is baseball’s popularity in the late 1990′s, but it’s difficult to tease that out from popularity due to the concurrent PED-fueled (likely) offensive explosion. That numbers were up leaguewide suggests that it wasn’t the Yankees being good.

Dan October 29, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Raise the hoop to 12 feet. The game was invented for youth as an indoor winter sport, not for grown men 7-ft tall. The 3-pointer was an open admission that the sport had become boring to watch, and just inflated scores. Raising the hoop would revive the game. Fewer points, but more meaningful.

zz October 29, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I disagree with the idea that soccer has fewer peaks of intensity; for a real fan, it requires almost fanatical intensity throughout, as the whole event is always within a few seconds of being decided.

Bernard Yomtov October 29, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Tom,

Thanks for the stats.

I think it’s pretty obvious there were both a push and a pull involved. Part of the reason the Yankees got such a big share of attendance was simply that their park was much bigger – about twice the capacity of Ebbets Field. Capacity was not the problem with the Giants, whose attendance truly was bad. So much for push.

But look at the pull. From 1959 through 1966 LA led the majors in attendance, having been nosed out by the Braves in 1958. Those attendance figures were greater than even the best years in Brooklyn, and a few times were over 2,500,000 – roughly the full-season capacity of Ebbets Field. Some years in the 60′s they more than doubled the Yankees’ attendance. Also, it was inevitable that baseball was going to go to California. Why not be first? That’s the pull.

So I disagree with you on the relative importance of the push and the pull. Note too, that part of the push was the inability to expand or replace Ebbets Field. This had more to do with politics than baseball. I don’t know if baseball could have continued to support three teams in NY. One possible scenario, had O’Malley gotten his new park, was for the Dodgers to remain and the Giants to go elsewhere. Who knows how that might have played out.

anon/portly October 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm

“But still, a *much* more exciting game.”

I don’t know why Tim M. is so sure about this. In comparison with the current version of basketball, games between closely matched opponents might lose some suspense if the 4th quarter (out of 7) didn’t end with the teams tied 2-2, which would only happen about 37.5% of the time (if the outcomes are like binomial coin flips).

Russell Nelson October 30, 2009 at 2:49 am

Tyler, you ask “What’s so great about suspense, anyway?”

I’ll tell you later.

anonymous October 30, 2009 at 6:39 am

Once upon a time, in 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke.

The marketers had done the focus groups and concluded that most people preferred New Coke. It turned out, however, that those were the people who rarely drank or bought Coke. The true fanatics, the ones who bought the stuff by the case — they utterly hated New Coke. And it died, quickly.

And now you are proposing “new basketball”…

blabla October 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

This idea will never be implemented, so let me suggest an alternative that is already being implemented. A part of the reason why regular season basketball is boring during the second and third quarters is that most coaches view this as a time to play their bench players–and not the good bench players like Manu Ginobli or Robert Horry, but the rawest players on the team, the ones who need the most development. There wouldn’t be as much of a need to do this if the league had a full-fledged farm system, allowing teams to develop their talent through the minor leagues. This kind of thing didn’t exist until a few years ago, with the creation of the development league. As the development league grows and turns into a real farm system, you won’t see as many coaches playing their bad players in the middle of games.

Dan Naylor October 30, 2009 at 9:10 am

while the end of games are exciting, they are often also excruciatingly boring. One team up by 9 with 30 seconds or so left, losing team hits a 3, then starts fouling. Commercial. Losing team gets the ball, makes a quick 2, still down 6, fouls again. No menaingful chance of winning relaly, but lots of TV timeouts. So yeah, i vote against this idea.

oh well.

Tom October 30, 2009 at 11:26 am

Bernard,
I wasn’t trying to discount the importance of the pull-LA and San Francisco were tremendously attractive available markets. But, Ebbets Field was still half-empty even in the Dodgers’ top attendance season in the 1950′s and the Polo Grounds was even worse outside of ’54. People could have gone to baseball games, easily (at least in terms of buying tickets); they just chose not to.

BruceM October 30, 2009 at 11:53 am

If one team won the first 4 periods (a “sweep”) it would be a pretty short game, only 28 minutes of play (plus all the time the clock is stopped which probably doubles it to, say, an hour). This would make for some very short games, and there needs to be some level of predictability to how long a game is, if for no other reason than TV broadcasts. Sure, they can always go into overtime, triple-overtime, etc., but that’s relatively rare.

On a somewhat related note, I was just suggesting that criminal trials should be best 2 out of 3, with different juries for each trial (but the same judge). Of course, legally speaking, if the state can only convince two out of three juries that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then I’d say reasonable doubt most certainly exists. 66.6% is well below whatever certainty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is intended to mean.

Bernard Yomtov October 30, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Tom,

What you say is true.

I just feel that even the push was not primarily due to Yankee dominance on the field. The Dodgers were a great team after all, and (conjecture alert!!) probably commanded a more committed fan base than the Yankees. In the 12 years from WWII to the move they won the NL pennant six times and were second four times. The World Series losses to the Yankees were mostly close. (The Giants, while winning two pennants in that period, were not nearly as consistently strong, and certainly were third banana, Willie Mays notwithstanding).

jamese October 30, 2009 at 2:52 pm

It seems to me that most of the oh so constructive criticism comes from people who are not fans of basketball. Believe it or not, a lot of people do enjoy the game as it is (even if it is hardly perfect) and are not interested in a bunch of gimmicky changes to satisfy the people who would never be more than casual fans anyway. Basketball is an aesthetically beautiful game (which is why the awkward college game can’t compete with the pros in my eyes) and the appeal goes beyond the ultimate result of the game. To me, the only reason the last two minutes are so exciting is because of context, the constant back and forth, that led to a close game late.

Caper29 October 31, 2009 at 1:40 am

Give both teams 100 points to start with and shorten game time to 2 minutes.

Michael Rulle October 31, 2009 at 10:40 am

My biggest problem with the NBA is half the league makes the playoffs. The playoffs tend to be redundant as the bottom 8 gets blown out usually—but it also means the season is redundant. MLB has 25% make it—although the best of 5 first round is a joke. Personally, I would prefer that 4 teams make the playoffs in MLB, but 8 is fine. First round should be best of 4/7. Weather is a problem unless they shorten back to 152 game seasons. NFL has 12–which is too many–but they counter act the effect with the concept of a “bye week”. This is clever. Also, wild cards do get to the Super Bowl often enough to justify their inclusion.

I love NBA. I agree with Tyler on star system–particularly when such stars win titles–which is almost the definition (for some reason San Antonio is the exception–no one gets excited about them). But somehow most of the season feels like a huge waste of time—I still think its the 16 teams. Hockey? fagettaboutit.

Brent November 2, 2009 at 10:40 am

I think the best thing basketball — particularly the NBA – -could do to improve the game would be to widen the court by about 6 – 8 feet on each side. With the size and speed of the current NBA (and to a lesser degree, college) players, almost all of the plays that are run are inherantly vertical because there isn’t enough room on the sides for the same type of plays because things get too crowded. I think widening the court so they made better use of the perimeters would vastly improve the game without changing the concept and historical approach at all…

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