Remember when we used to have distinct seasons? These days it’s hard to know what’s what.
The calendar says it’s summer. But you leave your home many days and, like a blast of autumnal air, overhear sports fans talking about the NBA as if it’s November.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s players and teams have managed to make pro basketball nearly a year-round obsession, like the NFL, MLB and national politics.
It remains to be seen whether the chatter will continue through August and September, but it’s loud and clear for now.
ESPN, the biggest megaphone in sports, gets an assist.
Channel surfing on a Monday afternoon in July and, live from Las Vegas, you’ll find a Pelicans-Pistons summer-league game on ESPNU and Raptors-Thunder on NBA TV with fans in the stands presumably there for more than just the air conditioning.
By day’s end, 10 summer-league games were to be televised live between those two channels and ESPN2. Another five were on tap for Tuesday.
The baseball season is more than half over. The All-Star Game starters have been announced. The trade deadline is coming up. Some team is going to pry Manny Machado loose from the hapless Orioles, and the questions on so many minds are:
Who’s going to land the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard? Where’s Carmelo Anthony headed? How about Isaiah Thomas? Can Kevin Love be liberated from the Cavaliers? Is Dwyane Wade done or up for another season? What will be the full impact of LeBron James’ move to the Lakers?
How did we get here?
After all, the NBA is hardly unique in its efforts to sell its brand around the globe and keep it front of mind as much and as long as possible.
How did it manage to get so many people obsessed with salary-cap space and other business considerations that have spurred players to jump from team to team?
Deeply invested in the league through its $1.4 billion-per-season NBA rights deal through 2024-25, ESPN has been useful advancing the league’s popularity.
The Disney-owned multiplatform behemoth’s treatment of the NBA draft rivals the Oscars, “The Bachelorette” and a royal wedding rolled into one.
Not everything ESPN has tried to fluff its coverage has succeeded. Expanding its draft lottery selection show to an hour was a bust. The draft order takes a few minutes to recite, and 60 could not be sustained.
But much like its coverage of the NFL draft, on which its NBA draft coverage is modeled, ESPN floods the zone before, during and after with a mix of speculation, analysis, opinion and occasionally news.
By refining and recalibrating its approach to hold viewers’ interest, this draft obsession manages to both feed off fan interest and fuel it, like one of those never-ending postgame baseball discussions about whether a team should trade for some player it can’t possibly land or just fire the hitting coach.
ESPN’s determination to get as much mileage from star Adrian Wojnarowski’s authoritative reportage has given him and his info added exposure. That has helped make everything in his sphere fodder in the TV and radio argument-show ecosystem throughout the day.
There has been a lot of activity and a lot of money this offseason, and there’s something about watching money change hands that — for better or worse — a lot of people find inherently fascinating.
People obviously love stars, too, and basketball has none bigger than James. Taking his talents to the nation’s second-largest media market and the world’s entertainment industry center only amplified that huge splash. The ripples are still being felt from coast to coast.
But James is only one of about 50 NBA free agents who, as of Monday, had struck deals worth more than $1 billion collectively, according to Sports Illustrated, which then offered a list of the 15 best restricted and unrestricted free agents still available.
The big bonanza for the NBA is how ESPN has come to regard the NBA Summer League like the college football bowl games it owns and operates.
Relevance is relative and, as relatives go, ESPN is a supportive rich uncle. The NHL, during its regular season, would love to get the attention these summer vacation tutorials are getting.
Here in Chicago, the Cubs are contending and, between new Bears coach Matt Nagy and the promise of Mitch Trubisky, there’s interest that cannot so easily be eclipsed in a football-friendly market.
That the fate of the Eastern Conference and curiosity over Zach LaVine’s mindset with a rehabbed knee and a healthy bank account has risen to that level is a coup for the NBA.
The globe, it seems, is warming to pro basketball, regardless of the season.