Why the NBA Succeeded Where Other Leagues Failed.
Today when we think of professional basketball we think of the NBA. The NBA has become a cornerstone in American sports along with the NFL, NHL and MLB. It is the most successful basketball league of all-time, raking in tens of billions of dollars annually and has about a billion viewers world wide.
But this wasn't always the case. At one time the NBA was little more than a footnote, not just to the NHL, NFL and MLB, but to other basketball leagues as well. So what changed? How did the NBA succeed where these other leagued failed. Two things really, big cities and consistency.
The NBA, or the BAA as it was called back then, began in 1946 as a way for NHL owners to make money on days when their NHL teams were not playing. This is why the first group of teams where in cities with NHL teams; Boston (Bruins), Toronto (Maple Leafs), New York (Rangers), Detroit (Redwings), and Chicago (Blackhawks). The league quickly added other major cities in the region with large venues capable of hosting games; St Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Providence, and Washington.
Having teams in 11 of the largest cities in America was a stark contrast from the other major leagues who tended to focus on 1 or 2 major cities and the rest of the league being made up of small cities. There were some major cities that the BAA did not expand to, even though they had intended to when the the league set up its charter.
Three major cities notably absent from the BAA where Buffalo, Baltimore and Indianapolis. This was intentional by the BAA. When the BAA formed the biggest and most successful league in America was the NBL, and the NBL had a strangle hold on the entire state of Indiana. The NBL had a team in Indianapolis as well as teams in Anderson and Fort Wayne. The upstart BAA would not be able to compete. The second most successful league in America, the ABL had teams in Baltimore, and a lot of the medium sized cities around New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
The BAA seen the NBL as its biggest competitor and obstacle to market domination, and soon it became evident why. Both the BAA's New York Knicks and the NBL's Syracuse Nationals wanted big-man Dolph Schayes. The Knicks thought that since they were in the big apple that they would land him; Schayes chose the Nationals. The reason behind Schayes decision was that all the best players played in the NBL, and he was right.
The first season of the BAA was a struggle, but it brought about the second most important thing that has helped the NBA succeed. Consistency. The BAA had a set 60 game schedule and teams made the post season based on their on court play not their off-court draw. This was an issue to the NBL's predecessor the Midwest Basketball Conference, which allowed a Chicago team into the playoffs despite playing fewer games and have a worse record than a Detroit team, because the Chicago team would draw more fans.
Everyone in the BAA and the NBA now, plays the same number of games. There has been some exceptions, like the league used to have a playin format if teams where tied to get a playoff spot, and on a few rare occasions the league has been unable to reschedule a cancelled game; such as the Celtics and Pacers only playing 81 games due to the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. But having teams play the same number of games against the same teams, shows a level of consistency and fairness that was unseen prior to the NBA.
The BAA also forbid its teams from playing exhibition or barnstorming games against other leagues. At the time, this was seen as an insane policy because these barnstorming games brought in big money. This policy also kept the NBA teams out of the World Professional Basketball Tournament- a yearly tournament that had the best teams from all the league and the winner was recognized as the world champion. By keeping its product and players in house, however, the BAA was able to keep greater control of its product.
The BAA had a consistent set of rules as well. The NBL in its later years also adopted this policy. But many early leagues, the home team got to set the rules, which created an unfair advantage. Some teams would require a jump ball after every made basket, this would slow down the game significantly. Some of the lesser successful leagues even had different height hoops ranging from 9 feet to 12 feet and it was frequent to even have different size court dimensions, even for the most successful leagues.
The BAA also prevented its teams from leaving; though it would not always enforce this if it was to the leagues benefit. The teams and the league became synonymous with each other. Teams could also only trade with each other, though they could buy players from other leagues. Players who where signed to BAA contracts could also only play for the BAA.
By insisting on conformity, the BAA made a better product and it quickly started to overcome the other leagues because of this. By the second BAA the league had poached the Baltimore Bullets from the ABL, and by its third season it had gotten the Kautskies, Lakers, and Pistons from the NBL and the NBL had started to contact the BAA about a merger.
The BAA had one other unusual aspect about it, that team owners hated, teams could not be named after sponsors. Most leagues had teams named after a company that sponsored them, and this created a lot of unusual names and made it hard to track their history. The NBA did not allow this, so when the Kautskies joined the NBA they had to change names and became the Indianapolis Jets.
By 1949 the BAA had successfully supplanted the NBL as the best league in basketball, but the NBL still had the best players, so a merger was discussed. The two leagues decided to merge for the 1949-50 season, and the Nationals, Royal, Hawks, Blackhawks, Packers, Redskins and Nuggets joined the NBA. The league also kicked, or allowed to leave the league, the Jets and replaced them with the Indianapolis Olympians. The 17 team league for the 1949-50 season was the largest the league got until 1974 when the NBA added the New Orleans Jazz.
The 49-50 season caused a lot of inconsistencies that the league hated. The smaller markets of the NBL put a huge undue burden on the larger BAA markets, and having a league that stretched from Boston to Denver was just too big from the 1940s. The following season the NBA kicked out the majority of the NBL teams that joined the season before, only allowing the Nationals, Royals, and Blackhawks to stay. All 3 of those teams are still around, though all 3 have since moved; the Rochester Royals are now the Sacramento Kings; the Tri-cities Blackhawks are now the Atlanta Hawks; and the Syracuse Nationals are now the Philadelphia 76ers.
The League kept a small base of teams from 1950 until the 1960s, and after losing teams in Washington, Baltimore and Indianapolis kept the league at just 8 teams. Not over-expanding as been another hallmark of the NBA. Many early leagues tried to add as many teams as they could, but this watered down the league. But the NBA keeping just 8 teams caused certain teams to get oversaturated with talent, and this is what we see with the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, The Celtics often times had 8-10 hall-of-famers on their roster.
While the NBA does love its consistency, it has not been absent change. When the Pistons held the ball almost all game to beat the Lakers 19-18, the league came up with a solution and added the 24 second shot clock. And when teams became oversaturated with talent, and a competitor league started up, the NBA began expanding.
The NBA first tried to expand into Chicago in 1961 with the Packers. The team became the Zyphyrs the next season and a season after that became the Bullets and moved to Baltimore.
The real era of expansion began in 1966 when the ABA announced its intentions to form a rival league. The NBA did not want a rival, but it knew that players would leave its teams to get more money and playing time with its rivals, so the NBA began expanding again. Once again the NBA chose Chicago. Chicago has had a bad history with teams, many successful teams have failed to gain traction in the windy city. Even the NBA had failed there twice, once with the Stags and again with the Packers. But this time the NBA would be successful with the Chicago Bulls.
The NBA had to start looking westward as well. The league had only ever had 2 teams west of the Mississippi River; the Denver Nuggets which lasted all of one season, and the Lakers who had relocated to Los Angeles in 1960. So starting in 1960 the NBA began added teams in the west. The NBA added teams in Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix, Portland, as well as untapped eastern markets like Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cleveland and New Orleans.
Like the NBA, the upstart ABA looked at the west as well. The ABA put teams in Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego, St Louis, Louisville, New York, New Orleans and Miami.
The ABA was a hit with fans, the fast paced game and innovated fan experiences drew in fans. But the league was unstable. Within a few seasons almost all the teams had relocated or disbanded. The ABA was able to hurt the NBA financially though, and the NBA finally acquiesced and played exhibition games with the ABA.
The ABA forced the somewhat dogmatic NBA to change its ways. The NBA adopted some of the fan experiences, the 3pt line, and other innovations from the ABA. But like many leagues the ABA expanded to quickly and too frequently, and by 1974 the league was on its last breath. Like the NBL before it, the ABA wanted to incorporate into the NBA. The NBA decided that it would use teams in some markets and took the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets and New York Nets.
The NBA has been very good at keeping its franchises afloat when they are in trouble. One famous example is in 1984 when the Utah Jazz were in financial turmoil, the NBA chief counsel and future commission David Stern went to a bank in Salt Lake City and personally vouched for the Jazz to get a loan to stay afloat. By keeping all teams in the black, the league has seen unprecedented financial success and growth.
This consistency has been the primary factor as to why the NBA has succeeded where many leagues have failed. This consistency also appears to be a hallmark of the league in the future. The league has sustained desire from fans to expand to Europe and other cities as it may not be financially prudent to do so. The league has kept a very similar product with similar rules from its inception to now. The league has updated when needed, but has avoided added stupid gimmicky things like a 4 point line.