According to Ticketmaster, if you want to buy a ticket in row 14 of section 333 for the game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers on November 30, it will cost you $86.00, not counting the chunk that Ticketmaster will charge you. If you want to buy the same ticket two nights later to watch the Bulls play the Cavaliers, you will pay $150.00. Now part of the reason for that is that it’s a weekend, and part of it is that the defending champs are in town, but the biggest reason that the Bulls will hit you with what amounts to a 74% surcharge is that LeBron James will play that night.
Except that he probably won’t. Because the Cavs have a big game against the Clippers the night before that at home, on national television, against his buddy Chris Paul. LeBron sells his soul to win games like that, so he’ll go forty minutes plus if that’s what it takes. And over the past year or so, if the Cavs have a back-to-back (especially one that involves travelling), LeBron will more often than not sit the second game.
Now when you buy a ticket to an NBA game, there is no implied promise that you will see a particular player. After all, LeBron could get hurt between now and then – quick, knock on wood – or he could even get traded. It happens. OK, he won’t get traded. But until a few years ago, a ticket to an NBA game cost the same, regardless of whether the opponent was the best team or the worst team in the league. That’s no longer the case. Now they have this thing called dynamic pricing, where the teams try to scalp the tickets before the scalpers get involved by charging more for the best games. A case could be made that the extra $64.00 being charged to see the Cavs carries an implied promise that the Cavs will be better than the Lakers, kind of like when you pay an extra dollar for Super Tide, you get pissed if your clothes aren’t any cleaner, even when the box didn’t explicitly say they would be. But the Cavs are 4-16 when LeBron sits out over the past two-plus years, so without him they’re… the Lakers.
Even if LeBron plays, it’s not likely you’ll see the Cavs at their best. If LeBron plays, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love might sit. Even if they all play, consider this: after the game against the Clippers ends around 10:30 Cleveland time, the players will sit around the locker room until midnight or so talking to the media and getting treatment, then they take a bus to the airport, get on a plane around one (if they’re lucky – it is an airport, so something will go wrong, even if you’re flying charter), fly to Chicago, then take another hour to get to their hotel, unless there’s traffic, and yes, Chicago does have traffic jams at two in the morning. By the time they actually get to sleep, it’s closer to four. You know how you’re more or less worthless at work if your kid was up crying all night? Yeah, it’s like that.
Now these guys make a billion dollars, so our default reaction is to say that they should just suck it up. But when you’re paying $150 for a ticket in the last row of the arena, you don’t want to see LeBron at even 90%. You want to see LeBron at his triple-double, Hall of Fame, just-try-to-stop-me best. When you shell out that money and elite players are going through the motions because their bodies are worn out – or worse, not even dressing – the chances of you coming back for another game will be much lower.
The NBA owes that to its fans. If things keep progressing as they are right now, the NBA will be bigger than the NFL in ten years. But part of the reason for that is that the NFL took you for granted. They thought that they could charge you full price for preseason games and do Thursday night games where the teams look like zombies and use amateur officials who can’t explain what a reception is and pay more attention to end zone celebrations and deflated balls than concussions and domestic violence and you would keep watching.
The NBA needs to learn from this. It needs to make sure you are seeing these phenomenal athletes as close to their absolute best every time they take the floor. To be honest, it is better than it was a few years ago, when teams would routinely play four road games in five nights or play a back to back in cities two time zones apart. But the Cavs still play seventeen back to backs this season, and sixteen of those involve travel (fifteen involve travel after a night game). Last year, the Cavs were 8-8 in the second game of a back to back that involved travel, compared to 49-17 in all their other games. Some of that was because they rested guys, but whatever the reason, fans at those games obviously did not see them at their best. With a regular season that spans 169 days, the NBA should be able to fit in an 82 game schedule with minimal back-to-backs. The league has obviously made a decision not to do back-to-back games at home. This should be reconsidered, as it would alleviate the burden of travel while also lessening home court advantage, as too often the home team has been sleeping in their own beds and had time to practice for a couple of days while the visitor is practically coming straight to the arena from the airport. As it stands now, the only choice teams have is to rest key players during back to backs, which is a disservice to the fans that the league is counting on.