Is 82 games too many in a season?

The NBA Playoffs are in full swing. To get here, teams have played a multitude of grueling games. Each team sees the other 29 more than a couple of times in the year. It hasn’t always been this way. A scourge of injuries has brought this topic back to the fray – is 82 games too many in a season? A host of factors play into why teams run the court this much. Money, rivalries, fans…money. It’s mostly money. Below we’ve broken down the cases for and against a change to the NBA scheduling. But first…

A History of Games Played

In 1954, a handful of years into the NBA’s existence, there were only 8 franchises. The 24-second shot clock had just been invented. Still, they played 72 games each. A gradual expansion (of both teams and games) occurred until 1967, when the league settled on 82 games. A dozen teams were facing off at this time, yet no more schedule changes occurred after the NBA added 18 more organizations; the last one (so far) being the Hornets in 2004. With a rumored expansion to Seattle and Las Vegas on the cards, will the NBA go further than 82? And why 82? For that question, we turn to the scheduling math below:

• 4 games against 4 division opponents (16 games),
• 4 games against 6 (out-of-division) conference opponents (24 games),
• 3 games against the remaining 4 conference teams (12 games),
• 2 games against teams in the opposing conference (30 games).

The above is mostly correct, save for when the new In-Season Tournament happens. That found the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers battling each other 11(!) times overall – 5 in the regular season and 6 in the playoffs. Below are some reasons why we won’t see a schedule reduction.

Case For

  • Money: Coinage. Dinero. Moolah. The biggest reason why. People are willing to pay to watch; a HEAP of people. The average NBA team was worth $300 million in 2004 – that number has increased 13x to $4 billion in 2024. That valuation is contingent on there being a lot of action. More games played = more money for owners, teams and players. Of course, players want to play less for more money. That won’t fly with owners or advertisers.
  • Advertisers: Nationally, the NBA is expanding its broadcast partners from 2 to 3. The result? The next broadcasting contract could pay out $76 billion over 11 years. Advertisers fund these broadcasters so they can afford to do this. They will want as many games shown as possible.
  • Fans: Fans want to see games. If you live in say, Toronto, you have 41 times to see the Toronto Raptors in Canada. That gives you enough leeway. Fewer games means less opportunity on that front. The NBA inserts itself into the global consciousness on a year-round basis. The draft, the Finals, the pre-season…all are centred around providing fans with almost TOO much content.
  • Player salaries: Dave Bing, points leader in the 1967-68 season, had season earnings of around $138,000 in today’s money. Brice Sensabaugh, 28th pick in this year’s draft, will earn $12,500,000 over his first four years in the league. Player salaries have exploded. These salaries rely on players being in a mass of games.
  • Rivalries: As mentioned earlier, the Bucks and Pacers played each other 11 times this year. The Pacers won 8 of those. That won’t exactly engender good feelings. Rivalries are crucial for any sport – more games gives them a chance to evolve.
  • Gambling: The league welcomed legal gambling a few years ago now – it is everywhere. This external pressure and revenue source directly impacts how many games are played.

And now, why we SHOULD see a schedule reduction?

Case Against

  • The ‘Grind’: There are around 400 players at any one time. About that number watched every single Detroit Pistons game this year. Arguably, the season is too long for continued interest. The In-Season Tournament was brought in to counter this – we will see if casual fans truly take to it. Reducing the games to 70 would buck overall fanaticism for the league.
  • Injuries: Every NBA Playoff series has been impacted by major injuries this year. In a separate sport, Jürgen Klopp (outgoing manager of Liverpool FC) has rallied against the increase of games. Can the same argument be made here? While the number of contests scheduled has not increased, the league has brought in mandatory minimums for games played. If you want to be the MVP, you have to play at least 65 games. This will cause more injuries and more belly-aching.
  • NFL vs NBA: The NFL is by far the biggest sport in America. Why? Could a reason be that they play 16-20 games vs 82-110 games? Maybe. Each NFL game has a massive impact on the standings. The same can not be said for this basketball league.
  • Travel: The scheduling gods try to factor for this, but NBA teams travel across their continent multiple times. In a world that is currently on fire, do we really need 82 games? We definitely do not get the best out of players when they play back-to-backs. Fewer games would eliminate back-to-backs.
  • Fans: Can that Toronto fan afford to attend 41 Raptors home games? Short answer – no. For the bigger media markets (Los Angeles, New York), regular fans have been priced out of courtside seating for a while now. Fewer games would make it more of an ‘event’ for a fan.

Closing Thoughts

The NBA isn’t resistant to change. The In-Season Tournament and Play-In Tournament are shining examples of this. 82 games may be too many but that number is unlikely to change any time soon.