There’s an argument to be made for the NBA as the most forward-looking major sports league, at least in the United States. Players and coaches are generally viewed as being more socially and politically progressive, commissioner Adam Silver is seen as a sharp and creative individual, and most fans agree that the product has been steadily improving for years. While the NBA may not have the revenue of the NFL or NASCAR, the history of the MLB, or the international reach of the NHL, it may be trending upward more sharply than any other pro sport.
The key for Adam Silver and others with a say in league direction is to continue to adapt and improve. Complacency can be a dangerous thing for a major league, but fortunately for fans the NBA is showing no signs of slowing down. Here are just a few ways in which we might see the world’s greatest basketball league evolve in the coming years.
Growth of the “G-League”
The NBA’s Developmental League, often referred to as the “D-League,” has long been a source of dismissal and ridicule. There’s been a negative stigma attached to a player’s relegation to the D-League, and the whole structure of the league has been a bit confusing. Some NBA teams have direct D-League affiliates and some don’t, which makes the direction of developing players difficult to follow. We recently learned of the NBA’s intent to rebrand this lower tier as the G-League following a sponsorship agreement with Gatorade (hence the “G”). The name change is a little silly, but it could help the league to get out from under its negative reputation, and boost the product. The “G-League” will make more money than its predecessor, and as a result we may see a more direct minor league development system worked out. In the next decade, we could see every NBA team have the equivalent of an MLB club’s AAA affiliate, and the G-League might become a viable source of affordable entertainment for fans.
Sticking with expansion into smaller leagues, we’re already seeing the NBA wisely taking an interest in the growing popularity of competitive gaming. With eSports growing rapidly all around the world, and sports games among the most popular genres for competitive gamers, the NBA is attempting to stay ahead of the curve. The league has formed its own eSports league for the NBA 2K gaming series. It will feature professional gamers drafting players and then playing out seasons in a format that mimics the actual NBA. This development won’t affect the NBA itself, but it gives the league a firm hold in a major developing industry, and could turn virtual basketball into a sort of sister “sport” of professional basketball.
Since taking over as NBA commissioner, Adam Silver has made it known that he’s interested in the idea of overseas expansion. While he has stressed that the NBA would need four European teams to make it work across the Atlantic, a few other options—such as Mexico City—have also been brought up. We’re in the early stages of this idea, but the sport is growing and steadily expanding its overseas popularity, and the commissioner appears more than willing to attempt this kind of growth. By the tail end of the next decade we could see foreign franchises either in the works or already competing.
Return To Seattle
This is a smaller point, but pretty much everybody wants the NBA to return to Seattle. When the Sonics were yanked out of town and plopped down in Oklahoma City, the NBA lost a beloved franchise, and the talk to get them back has never really quieted down. With the league thriving and Seattle having only improved as a market (thanks to its being a hub for tech companies), it seems likely that the next expansion team will land there.
Changing viewing options
The NBA has become particularly accessible to fans in recent years, thanks to the growth of its “League Pass” streaming service. More people are watching basketball the way they want to, whether that means through ordinary cable packages or via streaming on phones, tablets, or gaming consoles. But it could be that the NBA is only in the infancy of an effort to improve viewing options. Some have speculated that individual teams could launch their own streaming services tailored to their own fans, and Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put forth the idea of point-of-view streaming in a recent appearance on the Bill Simmons podcast at The Ringer. Ballmer suggested that software could work out a way for viewers to select individual players and watch entire games from those players’ perspectives. This might be the best example of how much of a forward-thinking community the NBA really is.