OKLAHOMA CITY — The veteran Celtics arrived with the NBA’s best record. The upstart Thunder was riding a wave of wins against some of the league’s top teams.
Last Tuesday’s game between the two was must-see TV.
Unless you lived outside of OKC or Boston.
A game tailor-made for national television was available in local markets or via NBA League Pass. But it wasn’t broadcast to a national TV audience. Not even on NBA TV, where the night’s first game was a less appealing big-market battle between the Bulls and 76ers.
So why not slide the Thunder and Celtics into that time slot?
And why not move the up-and-coming Thunder into a few more national games, now that it’s playing an exciting style with emerging stars?
In other words, why not build a rolling TV schedule that’s less rigid and allows more for getting hot teams and emerging players in front of the widest audience? Or accounts for the hit a game’s appeal takes when a star goes out with a long-term injury?
The NBA sets its national TV schedule prior to the season, and there are lots of reasons for that. But it does change.
Games get moved on and off national television all season. Just last week, the Thunder’s Jan. 24 game at San Antonio was moved from ESPN to ABC and its home game against the Rockets was upgraded from a local broadcast to a national one on TNT.
But there are challenges every time the national TV schedule changes. And though they’re manageable with a little lead time, those challenges could get unruly with a more flexible schedule.
Among those challenges:
Regional sports networks
Many hurdles of flexible scheduling center on the RSNs that partner with teams to produce local broadcasts.
An RSN and a team agree on a contract based in part on volume. The RSN pays the team a certain amount in broadcast rights based on how many games it gets and how many of those games will be exclusive — in other words, not shown side-by-side with a broadcast of the same game by an NBA national broadcast partner.
ABC games and many TNT games are exclusive. ESPN games often run side-by-side.
So when the national TV schedule is released, the RSN knows how many games it will have, how many will be side-by-side broadcasts and how many it won’t get at all.
If that changes, the RSN’s contract with the team can change, and that’s a complication. In many cases, both parties have built operating budgets based on the amount agreed upon to start the season — the money in for the team, the money out for the RSN.
There are other, less obvious RSN issues too. In some cases, they have union employees whose contracts include a set number of games. Moving a game off an RSN into an exclusive national TV slot can create a contract issue for those employees.
Most of the NBA’s 30 teams like their standard home games to tip off at 7 p.m. local time, though some prefer 7:30 p.m.
A national TV doubleheader typically means a game at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and one at 10 p.m. Eastern. Moving a game into the highest-profile slots on the national TV schedule sometimes means shifting the start time.
And while that’s common in, say, college football, where fans are accustomed to TV times announced two weeks out, those games mostly take place on Saturdays.
The NBA has a much higher volume of games on a much wider range of days.
So while shifting a game here and there isn’t a major issue, a truly open schedule with the flexibility to announce, say, four or six weeks of national TV games at a time would require moving dozens of start times, which can present scheduling problems and confusion for arena employees, team staff and season ticket holders.
If you watch an NBA game on ABC, ESPN or TNT, you’re more likely to see referees whose names you know, and that’s by design. It’s no secret that the NBA wants its best officials on its highest-profile games.
Moving a game from regional to national TV sometimes necessitates adjusting the referees’ schedules.
Like a lot of the TV scheduling challenges, that’s not so hard when a couple of games move around in a month. It’s a much more daunting proposition under a true rolling-schedule format where the lead time on selecting national TV games is a matter of weeks.
There are small hurdles to broadcast changes that you’d probably never think of.
Here’s one: The NBA’s national broadcast partners typically place their announcers courtside, across from the scorer’s table. But in many arenas, that space goes to courtside seats for fans.
Teams can account for those games and not sell tickets in that space when the national TV schedule comes out before the season. But if the tickets are sold already and a broadcast team moves in for a game, the team has some shuffling to do.
In short, it’s not as easy as putting the night’s best game on national TV. And though it’s conceivable the NBA will shift to a more flexible TV schedule someday, it would require a major overhaul of scheduling practices.
In the meantime, it’s likely the Thunder will pick up a few national games if it continues to play this way. And you can count on a whole lot more when the NBA lays out the 2024-25 schedule… next fall.