Why Summer League Success Showcases the NBA’s Business Strength

Why Summer League Success Showcases the NBA’s Business Strength article feature image

Via David Dow/Getty Images. Pictured: Sphere displays the In Season Tournament visuals on its exterior, the largest LED screen on Earth, during the 2023 Las Vegas Summer League on July 8, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

LAS VEGAS– NBA Summer League was once a place for only the sickos and lifers. It was primarily personnel folks hanging out, catching up, networking and the media who truly obsessed over the game and wanted to see that second-rounder play 20 minutes a night.

The event has slowly gained attention over the past decade as more fans made the trip for both a summer vacation and a more affordable way to see NBA-level talent compete as more media caught on to the opportunities for both content and networking here.

It's hit an entirely different level of popularity.

The line to get into the Thomas and Mack Center when the doors opened — a full six hours before Victor Wembanyama stepped on the court — stretched around the entire two-gymnasium building.

Media seats, which are typically largely empty, were entirely full, with members sitting against stanchions to watch the Spurs' No.1 overall pick's largely disappointing debut.

It's not just the presence of the French Phenom that drove the larger size of this event this season, though.

What started as a way to get time with the rookies and check out potential end-of-bench players has turned into more or less a fan convention. The NBA launched NBACon this year at Mandalay Bay, an interactive fan experience with panels from NBA stars and personalities, including exhibits and events built around music, fashion and merchandise.

The culture of the NBA is expanding in the social media era, and you're seeing that integration expand gradually.

The surrounding ecosystem around Summer League now features everything from a tech expo to live podcast shows to fashion events. Plus, it's no surprise a thriving after-hours party scene across Sin City.

It's a testament to the NBA's power as a revenue machine that it's not just the games that matter. There are mechanisms that don't need a court or players to drum up interest.

This is how a sport that has seen struggles with ratings and that has major questions about what it will look like in the post-LeBron, post-Warriors era can still be one of the most powerful sports brands on the planet.

With the new NBA media deal on the horizon, as well as the potential expansion of sports gambling in states like Texas and California sometime down the line, the NBA has no reason to look at its status and trajectory as concerning. They're not losing relevance, they're just shifting it in different directions.

The concerning area has to be the on-court product with load management and the perceived (and accurate, in my opinion) lack of effort in the regular season.

NBA In-Season Tournament

Which brings us to the In-Season Tournament.

The NBA released details on Saturday night. It's complicated, and I'm not going to break down everything you need to know yet. We'll have a lot more coverage here as those games approach. What you should know:

  • Tuesdays and Fridays are going to be group-play stages, so those games will, theoretically, have more effort and meaning
  • There will be an opportunity to bet the group winners, a fun wrinkle on in-season futures
  • Two teams will play 83 games in the regular season; it's not an avalanche of more games
  • The scheduling will be complicated but will make more sense when it's released in August
  • The winning team gets $500,000 per player. That is both nearly insignificant to most stars and extremely important to the rest of the roster

There's skepticism the tournament will "fix" the problems that besiege the league from a perception standpoint, but in concert with the CBA changes to make 65 games played the minimum for league awards, it's at least an effort in exploring solutions.

In truth, this is why so much discussion of the downfall of the NBA, or the ratings apocalypse, or whatever the crisis of the week is doesn't really ring with any truthfulness.

Being up close with how much money flows in and out of events like Las Vegas Summer League that only seems to grow, and the way All-Star Weekend is an incredible revenue engine despite being the worst of the four major sports in terms of the televised event, shows you how the league is a monster no matter the on-court product.

The on-court product is probably underrated at this point as well, as the emergence of Nikola Jokic, Ja Morant, Jalen Brunson, Devin Booker and others shows the depth of stars waiting to battle out what should be a more wide-open field post-LeBron-Curry.

Wembanyama's disappointing debut doesn't stop him from being illustrative of how the next generation is likely to be made of players with both freakish athleticism and guard skills.

Summer League has lines around the block. The media deal will pay billions. The league has embraced influencer culture more than any other sport in the world.

Nothing stops the NBA Money Train.

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