How the NBA In-Season Tournament Can Impact Your Business

I’m not going to lie, when I first started hearing whispers of the NBA In-Season Tournament I wasn’t really thrilled.  I think as I get older I become more of a curmudgeon, so that initial reaction was likely if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  When it became officially announced mid-summer I was immediately dismissive.  Just like food though, I’m open to trying it at least once without prejudice, and am glad I did.

I think that’s how you’ll feel after reading this, even if you aren’t much of a basketball fan.  I say that because while there are several reasons that impress me with the tournament, it’s the disruptive approach as a business that impresses me the most.  Because there are some valuable lessons that can be applied to any business, even yours.

Now is probably a good time to highlight a valuable lesson Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas shared with me.  After purchasing the team that was in dire straits, Jesse made the revelation that they weren’t in the baseball business.  They were in the entertainment business.  Yes, they still play baseball, but they do it differently than any other team has resulting in one of the most viral, fastest growing fan bases in history.

So let’s jump in and start talking about basketball, so we can start revealing the larger business lessons!


NBA In-Season Tournament Explained

The rules of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament are not as complicated as people are making them out to be, you honestly just need 30 seconds of uninterrupted focus and it’s all pretty straight forward.  

In short, each team gets lumped together in groups of 5 according to their previous year records.  From there each team plays each team in their group once, and the team with the best record in each group, and two wildcards, advance to a win or go home playoff.

The final round of games will be held this weekend in Las Vegas, where the winning team will be awarded the first NBA In-Season Tournament championship trophy, and will walk away with a nice in-season financial bonus.

So like I said, it’s really not that complicated when you take a minute to walk through it.  There are some nuances that take a little getting used to, but those are also what has helped make the tournament more interesting.

You Are the Disruption or You’re Getting Disrupted

Given that the NBA is already the most preeminent basketball league in the world, you might think it’s more immune from outside disruptions that would impact their bottom line.  As a company at the top, the reality is it’s far more likely to take a hit then you’d expect.  In fact, famous actor/rapper Ice Cube co-founded the BIG3 league in recent years, and has alleged that the NBA isn’t happy with his league gaining in popularity.

I don’t think the BIG3 is a big threat to the NBA, however, it does go to show that outside disruption can negatively impact your business.  When you’re dealing with billions of dollars in marketshare and TV deals, even small disruptions can have significant bottom line implications.

Disruption can be a positive or negative, but you’re far more likely to make it a positive when you’re the one doing the disruption.  The league is doing their best to continue to grow the league, but much of this has been overseas.  

The In-Season Tournament has provided the perfect vehicle to positively disrupt the league in a clever way.  If you split the season into three parts you’d have the beginning of the season, the 2nd half of the season and then the playoffs.  If the Playoffs provide the most electric and memorable moments of the year, then the first part of the season is the one that produces the least excitement and interest.  The season is long and players are often a little sluggish to start the year which dilutes the actual product of the game for fans.

Couple this with the season starting while the NFL is ramping up towards the playoffs and you essentially have an inferior product when you could argue competition for fan interest is most competitive.

The NBA In-Season Tournament instantly created buzz before the season began, but it’s noteworthy that for as much buzz as it was creating amongst fans, it was also creating buzz within the league itself.  It’s a little too early to make any definite statements, but let’s look at some of the early buzz…

  1. NBA analysts largely agree that competition in tournament games is up.  This is a stretch, but some games have had a “playoff” feel to them which just makes the product itself more exciting and enjoyable.

  2. Margin of victory in tournament games is showing tighter games vs. non-league games.

  3. Television viewership is also up in tournament games this year, and I anticipate those numbers are only going to increase heading into this weekend’s final games.

  4. Media and social media exposure, both in-sport, and non-sport mediums have created substantial awareness outside of their base.

  5. Merchandise sales are also up for these games as all games played include special edition jerseys; more on this later.

Impact on Your Business

I’d like to go back to that Jesse Cole quote, “We realized that we weren’t in the baseball business, we were in the entertainment business.”  It’s this kind of awareness that helped reshape their entire perspective of what a baseball game could be.  To fully appreciate this you have to actually watch some of their creativeness in action.  I love how in the last moment you see a drone flying at field level for close-up action replays!

Purests will say that they’re ruining the game.  Trust me, I reached out to a former collegiate World Series winning pitcher for his thoughts on the creative approach.  My inquiry was met with loud and palpable silence.  So yeah, the Bananas aren’t for everyone, but Jesse had a business to run just like you.

When he bought the team had virtually no fans, which means he had virtually no money.  So Jesse got creative.  The team had an open team renaming contest, and when Savannah Bananas was selected they instantly got national exposure through multiple news outlets who honestly kinda laughed it off.

While the media was laughing Jesse and his team were focusing on ways to improve the customer experience.  While it’s easy to see the on the field entertainment, there are several fan related benefits that they implemented.  A huge one is that your game ticket includes free concessions which means you can eat all the hot dogs and popcorn you want throughout the game.  As a fan one of the biggest knocks in baseball is the length of the games, so the Bananas introduced speed focus changes like 2-strike pitch counts and no walks.

What they realized was that by confining themselves to the rules of baseball they were limited in how they could reshape their business and customer experience.  By simply changing the word baseball with entertainment, they suddenly had an unlimited way to make a live baseball experience much more entertaining.

This change in philosophy and the impact it’s had on the team can be reflected in one stat.  This non-name baseball team in some small league in the middle of nowhere (sorry Savannah, I can’t wait to visit and change my mind…seriously!) now boasts more social media followers than EVERY single MLB accounts.  Let that s…i…n…k in.

So what words or illusions are preventing you from creating your own unique disruptions?

Point Differential

You know the saying, “rules are meant to be broken”?  For me this saying has been more about understanding the rules, and finding the nuances where you can leverage the rules to your benefit.  One such rule is the “point differential” that comes into play as a tie-braker.  With only 5 games played in the first round, the chances for teams being tied is high, thus having a higher point differential can be the difference between advancing or missing out on the championship and prize money.

This has created some interesting moments, notably in late game situations.  Historically, when a team is up late in a game they’ll sit their starters, in essence to take their foot off the gas.  This has also been a sign of respect to the opposing team so as to not just destroy them.  

In tournament play, points matter and some coaches have gotten wise, like Joe Mazzula of the Boston Celtics, who called for late-game point saving strategies even when they’re up by as much as 30 in a game.  

Ultimately, this didn’t matter for the Celtics, but it did matter for the New York Knicks who finished tournament play tied, but advanced into the next round because their differential was plus 29 vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers who had a minus 7.


Impact on Your Business

Ultimately when you synthesize the NBA In-Season Tournament and point differential, you’re looking at a company that put fresh focus on a KPI that was already being paid attention to as a measurement of team success.  By putting a new rule in place that tied this KPI outcome to the ultimate goal, you’re getting coaches and players to think differently and get creative.  

So how can you do this within your own organization?  I think the main takeaway is that all companies want to win, but specific KPIs can help organizations “win” more strategically.  It’s good to target specific sales goals, however, what if you tied customer retention rate to those goals?  Maybe it’s market share or maybe it’s something internal like reducing manufacturing defects or increasing throughput.

Consider this; AcmeCo makes widgets that retail for $100 a piece.  Annually you sell approximately 20,000 units so your revenue is $2,000,000.  Heading into 2024 you decide you want to increase revenue so you set your sales target for the team at $2,200,000.  Now you can leave it there and follow the numbers each week and month, or you can be more strategic and add another focal KPI.  

You ask your team and someone pipes up and says retention seems to be off a bit, so what if your attrition rate that had been hovering around 75% was reduced to 60%?  That 15% reduction in attrition would immediately increase the bottom line by more than the original sales goal.  Even better is that repeat business in the moment tends to lead to sales in perpetuity.

What’s important here though, is to use the focus on this metric to better understand why attrition is so high in the first place.  Is there a defect in the product itself, perhaps a bump in the ordering process, or maybe it’s that marketing was outselling the actual capabilities.  

No matter the issue, focusing on this KPI has immediate and long lasting benefits to the business.  So when presenting your KPI focus to your team, make sure you present it well to your staff so they understand the strategy and can align with the newly formed goals.


Presentation Matters

Speaking about presenting things well, the league gets a tip of the cap for how they rolled this out because their attention to detail is showing.  They honestly could have just presented the tournament rules, the trophy and the prize money and I think we’d still be talking about it because of how competitive the players have been in these games.

But they focused on the team and fan experience resulting in a much more memorable tournament.  Let’s look at three of the top “extras” they presented when rolling this tournament out:

  1. Special Edition Courts: Each team in the league had a special NBA In-Season Tournament home court created for each of the games to be played on.  All of the courts are fairly uniform, but each team has their own team colors and locos accentuating things.  Love them or hate them, these courts have been getting a lot of buzz, which only helps expand the reach of the tournament.  Aside from a few miscues, these colorized courts help viewers visually see that the game they’re watching is a part of the new in-season tournament.

  2. Special Edition Uniforms:  To be fair, special edition uniforms have become the norm during regular season play in the NBA.  At first it just seemed like a way to sell more jerseys to the same fan base, and it probably still is.  However, the in-season tournament gives the league and teams a genuine purpose to mix up the threads.  Like the courts, these uniforms visually let the audience know the games are a part of the tournament, and because there is meaning behind the new styles I’m anticipating that sales for these will be higher than compared to years past.

  3. Location, Location, Location: All first and second round games are played at normal NBA home arenas, however the final rounds will be played in Las Vegas.  Just like fans, most love everything that Vegas has to offer.  Honestly, it’s a widely known secret that Las Vegas is likely to be awarded their own NBA team eventually, so hosting this tournament there just makes good business sense.  By hosting the final games in a central location allows for the league to add enhanced experiences, just like how they surround the All-Star game.

Impact on Your Business

Whether you have great news to share, like a brand new in-season tournament, or whether you have bad news to share presentation matters, and it matters a lot.  We’ve already talked a lot about how well the NBA did in presenting this new tourney, but consider the flip side of the coin.

What do you do when you have bad information to present?  If you remember nothing else from this piece I want you to remember this, “Bad news delivered well makes things better.”  Read that again, “Bad news delivered well makes things better.”

Recently dealing with this vendor that was giving me the runaround.  We’d had a problem arise that wasn’t a huge deal, but it was still something that needed to be solved.  After several attempts and lame runarounds filled with excuses, I finally got someone who listened and subsequently showed empathy and owned up to their mistakes.  While I appreciated the rep stepping up, I made it clear that I’d be looking for a new partner.

The main point is presentation matters.  What you look like, what you sound like, how you present is the first impression people are going to have even before they begin to consciously digest your message and offer.  So whether you’re rolling out something exciting, or whether you’re doing damage control, take the time to think about who you’re going to be talking to. What are their expectations, what questions or concerns might they have and then how can you adapt ahead of time?

If you need help creating disruption, identifying the best KPIs or working on presentations let our team here at Propelo Media help you.  We take the time to listen, think, and then start dialogue with our clients to help to form long lasting partnerships.  If you want to see what that’s about give me a call at 415.795.8333 x.707.  Until then, here’s to propelling your business forward heading into 2024!



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