As we head deeper into the playoffs I can't help but be reminded why I love this part of the NBA calendar so much. So why do we wait so long every year to get here?
Americans like to get to the best part of everything, and right away. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like a slow burn, we just want the payoff right now. It’s the reason we don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop, because no one has ever been patient enough to find out.
This same desire to get the best of everything takes over the sports landscape too. It’s the reason that soccer is the most popular sport in every other country in the world, but not in ours. Soccer is a beautiful, elegant game. When played at a high level it is a symphony of movement, ten players moving as one amorphous organism, and when goals are scored they’re most likely the culmination of a multi faceted, complex system of passing and positioning.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well that appeals to most in this world, but not to Americans, because it only comes together rarely. You might have to watch a whole game to get to enjoy this payoff just once or twice. We don’t have the patience for that, we need something to get us off our seats right away. Like now. I mean, you probably already want me to get going with this, get to the point. I’m getting there, trust me.
The sports we like have frequent intermediate goals. In football you don’t have to wait for a touchdown to cheer, you can root for the next first down. In baseball you may only get a few runs scored each game, but you can always get excited about the next time your team gets a hit or strikes someone out. Basketball may be the best example of a sport with intermediate goals. You have somewhere close to 200 possessions in every NBA game, with a chance to score on every one.
American sports are built around this need for immediate satisfaction, except for one aspect, playoffs. Playoffs are a uniquely American creation. Our professional sports, and most of our amateur sports, are designed around a slow build up of each season to a crescendo of excitement at the very end. We slog through regular seasons, sometimes interminably long, just to widdle down the field of teams to a select few who will get to play for the chance to win a championship.
And that makes playoffs the best part of every season. They have the most excitement, the highest level of play, and the games are must see for the fans. We even describe worthy regular season games as having a “playoff atmosphere”.
So if the regular season is just an excuse to get to the playoffs, why do we even need it? Why do we put up with so many meaningless regular season games just to get to the good stuff? Well, for a few reasons, the biggest being money. Regular season games bring in money for the owners, fans pay good money for tickets, buy concessions and pay for parking, even though most of the games aren’t worth the time to see them, let alone the money. It also serves a purpose to eliminate the teams that aren’t good enough to even be in the discussion of the league champion for that season.
But here’s the thing, I get the money aspect, the owners need to profit from their teams and money will always trump everything else in sports, and unfortunately in life, but I would imagine that playoff games are even more profitable then regular season games, because the fans are more interested in them. More people are watching, so TV ratings are higher, so the networks that televise the games would be willing to pay for their rights because they get more for their advertising revenues. Plus, games that have more at stake will tend to sell tickets better, which leads to more money from things like concession stands and team merchandise. Basically, the more important you make the game the more the fans will pay attention, and the more money you can make on each individual game.