What the NBA Can Learn from European Soccer as it Considers Adding a Regular Season Tournament

Written By Harrison Hamm on December 1, 2019 - Last Updated on February 21, 2020

The NBA, always trying to stay ahead of the game, is considering drastic changes to its schedule. They want to make the regular season feel more meaningful and relevant, and possibly cut down on players’ workloads in the era of load management.

Among other changes, the league is looking at adding a 30-team in-season tournament. This would add knockout games that take place during the regular season. There would be a group stage, with those games counting simultaneously as regular season games, and then an eight-team knockout tournament among qualifying teams from the groups.

Sound familiar? The NBA noticed what European soccer does and saw the system of cups overseas as the best path toward an improved regular season. This potential cup would combine elements of Europe’s domestic tournaments (FA Cup, Copa Del Rey, etc.) with the UEFA Champions League, which includes a group stage.

Why European soccer cups work

Europe, ostensibly, holds its domestic cups for the purposes of including all clubs down the ladder. By doing so, they’re giving smaller clubs a chance to theoretically upset the top-tier teams and win a historic trophy. It also provides smaller cubs an additional revenue source to stay competitive. The NBA has no teams down the pyramid to include. It also can’t invent a tournament that takes on immediate historic significance.

The Champions League is Europe’s biggest possible trophy, so it’s not really equivalent to what the NBA is trying to do. This hypothetical cup is intended purely as a supplement, something to break the monotony of a long regular season and add meaningful games that boost interest and TV ratings.

Challenges of the European model for the NBA

There are lessons the NBA can learn from those European tournaments if it’s going to implement something so drastic. Getting teams to care might be difficult. In Europe, teams often rotate lineups earlier in the tournament, and even later, but there is generally buy-in, with the lure of winning a historic trophy. The EFL Cup in England carries less credibility.

The NBA’s midseason cup would have trouble motivating the best teams. In Europe, there is the incentive of potentially winning a double or a treble. The NBA judges the best players and teams based on their playoff performance, and whether they come through when it matters in the postseason. If, say, the Clippers were to win the cup but lose in the Western Conference finals to the Lakers, they would take no consolation. The season will have been a failure.

It’s hard to imagine a middle ground emerging in how we discuss NBA teams. You either accomplished your goal, or you didn’t. The cup could end up being a symbol of a team’s inability to break through. People would mock the Rockets or Trail Blazers if they were to win a cup but never make the Finals.

In Europe, the FA Cup has been dominated by big clubs. Since 2000, only Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth have broken the spell of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. The EFL Cup contains slightly more parity, but City have won four of six trophies there. Thanks to the salary cap, the NBA has not been monopolized by billionaire owners, so that sort of domination is unlikely.

Middle-of-the-road teams winning the cup every year in the NBA could delegitimize it. This year, the Timberwolves, Magic, Spurs, Pacers, and Trail Blazers seem like teams that would take it more seriously. The cup would seem like a junior varsity subordinate.

Playing the group stage games as simultaneous regular season games will help incentivize teams to treat it as important, knowing that winning only three games after the group stage would be required to win a trophy and the large payout that comes with it. If those knockout games feel like real knockout games, even in November and December, the tournament would be a win for the NBA.

The dilemmas that present themselves in Europe, and in MLS, could arise. How do you evaluate a team if they had a disappointing season but won the domestic cup? We’ve seen that tricky question debated before in Europe. The NBA and traditional American sports have never dealt which such a conundrum.

If these drastic changes go into effect, it would be one of the first significant symbols of European sports infiltrating American sports. The NBA could end up as a fascinating example of an American league changing the way it thinks about its own setup.

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