The NBA and NCAA are Now Competitors

It’s no surprise the NBA and its television partners are, with their shiny new $24 billion TV deal in place, feeling an increased need to get the league seen by as many viewers in as many time slots as possible. With that, however, the NBA now has an unexpected enemy in the battle for ratings: NCAA basketball. With so many eyes and so much money at stake, the NBA can no longer be an cozy companion to college hoops; the NBA and NCAA are now competitors when it comes to its fans’ TV time.

Limelight is no longer to be shared between college and pro basketball. It’s been trending this way for a while now, and it could have an effect on the future of both associations.

One would assume the NCAA isn’t too pleased with this arrangement, but they don’t have a choice, much less a say in the matter. (It’s not like they’re hurting for TV money, either … at least for now.) This does make for strange enemies, though. It’s unlike any other in sports. Hockey and baseball really don’t have to worry about any chink in their ratings’ armor because their college/minor league systems attract mainly niche audiences. Likewise, the NFL and college football have what would appear to be an unwritten agreement to stay out of each other’s way (as much as possible, anyway). Being a sport where teams play once a week helps this arrangement, but it’s obvious the NFL allows the NCAA time in prime hours: College football gets Saturday to itself, the NFL gets Thursday, Sunday, and Monday, and they both stay away from Friday nights out of respect for high school football.

Virtually no solution for the NBA offers much in the way of ease on all sides as it increases its TV footprint. Either it goes super-selective in airing games, at the peril of its TV partners and running the risk of losing eyes that would otherwise be watching, or the NBA has to step on the toes of what is functionally its free minor league system. Until now, the NBA did subtly allow for college basketball to have windows of airspace throughout the week. That’s no longer the case.

Every season from here on, once the NBA settles into its post-NFL season schedule and gears up for the season to climax, fans can find games on every night of the week. Like the NFL, the NBA once left Saturdays alone for NCAA hoops. That’s no longer the case, generally speaking. Generally speaking, The NBA TV schedule now is as follows: double-headers on NBATV Monday and Tuesday nights; two games on ESPN Wednesday and Friday nights each; two games on TNT Thursday nights; a Saturday night game on ESPN or ABC; a Sunday afternoon game on ABC, and; a nightcap on NBATV to end the week.

Keeping NBA games on TV as much as possible has obvious advantages for the league, but it might go beyond that, too. Basketball fans are more divided than other fans. There’s plenty of people who, for whatever reason(s), only watch college basketball (even if those reasons may be antiquated now, but that’s a whole other issue). So the NCAA does have a comfortable floor ratings-wise, in that there’s a segment of the audience that will never be swayed to flip over to the NBA when games are televised at the same time. One would suspect the NBA is aware of this, and that this divide in the basketball fan base is, in part, reason to no longer feel the need to give college hoops slots of prime-time TV real estate.

One taking a college basketball perspective might see how it could become difficult to push its product to new heights when they’re now going up against the pro game so consistently now. Especially this season, when the talent appears to be so spread out – and there’s not an undefeated Kentucky-of-last-year-type team to thrust into the national spotlight – NCAA basketball could be vulnerable to a loss in viewership. (This might also account for why Ben Simmons has become the Patron Saint of College Basketball; Simmons’ game-to-game stat line continues to be jaw-dropping, and the top-ranked team(s) keep getting beat. In other words, the NCAA really needs something to sell to the more casual fans.)

Rightfully so, but speaking of Ben Simmons, the enforcement of the NBA’s age limit rule seems to be a bit perverse at this point, no? At first, it seemed like a throw-a-dog-a-bone move by the NBA, in part because when players like Simmons come along, the NCAA gets to cash in for a year before the NBA does. While that is still true, it is increasingly so obvious that the NCAA is just a holding cell for the top-tier players that it might make some uncomfortable (myself included). Which is to say: Every conversation about Ben Simmons this season will include something about him being “the consensus top pick in the next NBA draft,” or some NBA-related angle. I wouldn’t think the NCAA would be so thrilled with the NBA being such prevalent presence during games and shows where the focus should be the NCAA. Especially now that they’re going against each other on TV more than ever. And when the likes of Simmons and others are showcased for an entire season in college, knowing full well they’re playing in an arena full of NBA scouts – only making it more enticing for pro teams to tank – it would seem evident that the one-and-done rule might be a double-edged sword. As always is the case though, the only one who doesn’t get to handle either end of the power sword is the college athlete. (That may have seemed like a digression, but it’s all related, trust me.)

Yesteryear’s attitudes have shifted, and the paradigm shift has left pro sports as the most marketable thing on TV from an advertising standpoint, because it’s the only thing left on TV that demands its audience(s) watch live. Capitalism now has an ever-invasive place in the middle of NBA and NCAA relations, and the dynamics of said relationship should be something all basketball fans keep in the back of their minds going forward. Should the NBA pour money into their D-League, college basketball would stand to lose its monopoly on elite pre-professional talent. That could be devastating to its regular season TV ratings and revenue stream. Though college basketball will, however, always have perhaps the most marketable thing in all of sports with its “March Madness” tournament, a move from the NBA to take over its minor league system would hurt the NCAA’s bottom line nonetheless. And it would be fascinating to see how far a month-long tournament could go in the way of subsidizing all of college basketball, no matter how profitable March may be for the NCAA. For now, the cordial relationship between the NBA and NCAA for television exposure just received a mild shove into the uneasy.