When San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich chose to rest four starters during a nationally televised game back in 2012, he likely didn't think much of it.
Little did he know, this decision to sit Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green would go on to create a massive ripple effect, with the NBA creating rules about resting players and terms like "load management" entering the lexicon.
At the time, NBA commissioner David Stern fined Popovich and the Spurs $250,000 and said this decision was "a disservice to the league and our fans."
Nearly 12 years later, the NBA is still trying to combat this issue, implementing a new Player Participation Policy in order to prevent teams from resting their best players.
This new policy could conceivably be named the Coach Popovich Rule, but it’s not. The NBA’s Player Participation Policy specifically governs how teams are allowed to rest their stars. Current NBA commissioner Adam Silver put a very fan-friendly spin on the new rule.
“This is ultimately about the fans,” Silver recently told reporters following two days of Board of Governors meetings in New York. “And that we’ve taken this [load management] too far. This is an acknowledgement that it has gotten away from us a bit.”
The league’s perceived intention seems fair: reverse the load-management trend, which has seen a rise in star players voluntarily missing games – an admittedly bigger problem now than in the recent past. During the 2022-23 season, the average games played by the league's top-10 scorers was 65 games per player. Comparatively, the average games played by the top-10 scorers in 2012-13 was 75 games!
Ultimately, this move will benefit the fans, but was this really done with the fans’ interests in mind? By limiting how often stars rest, the NBA’s on-court product will inevitably be more compelling. While that's good for fans, it's also good for the NBA itself (but more on that in a moment). Stars sitting out nationally televised games was never a good look, so putting an end to that trend is important.
But digging a bit deeper, I believe it becomes clear that this move is more about business than fan satisfaction. Let's consider, for a moment, that the league’s current broadcast rights deal expires following the 2024-25 season. The current TV deal is worth a total of $24 billion over 10 years. The NBA hopes to double – or even triple – that number in its next deal, according to Jabari Young of CNBC. It is entirely possible that the league is looking to demonstrate increased value for its bidders, which will likely include the usual suspects like Turner Sports and ESPN as well as streamers like Amazon and Apple.
For what it’s worth, Apple recently inked a deal with Major League Baseball, paying $85 million annually to air Friday Night Baseball games over the next seven years. Meanwhile, Amazon reached an agreement with the NFL to pay $1 billion annually for 10 years for exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football games. The NBA is trying to entice these same companies to bid for their broadcast rights.
It's important to note that the Player Participation Policy isn't the league’s first attempt to improve its televised product. The NBA also recently announced its inaugural in-season tournament, conveniently beginning this season, which is likely to be marketed differently and, therefore, viewed more regularly. Furthermore, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was ratified in April 2023, dictates that players must participate in at least 65 games to qualify for in-season awards. In total, these are major changes in order to ensure that the NBA's best players are suiting up more often than not.
This could ultimately be a win-win for the league and its fans. Players will probably need more convincing. But if the league plans to continue with an 82-game season – which it should – star players must lead the way, meaning they need to be front and center as often as possible. Rest is, of course, an important part of the process, which is likely to be an area of frustration for star players. But the medical advancements, health-oriented amenities and teams of on-staff trainers should ultimately translate to more games played for modern players – not fewer.
And considering how aggressively maximum salaries have increased, stars will understand. In 2012-13, the highest salary in the NBA was $30.5 million (Kobe Bryant). In 2022-23, it was up more than 50% to $48 million (Stephen Curry). By 2026-27, the highest salary will be at least $63 million (Damian Lillard). Of course, a big reason for these monster salaries is the NBA's TV money. This was never more apparent than during the summer of 2016, when the NBA's new broadcasting deal caused the salary cap to spike and teams went on a spending spree (handing out massive contracts that some would quickly regret).
But for the league’s TV partners to also benefit monetarily, star players must be available as often as possible as a means of driving interest – especially since more and more fans are pledging their allegiance to stars rather than teams. The league clearly understands this fact. Just look at how the NBA structures its Christmas Day games, which are normally among the most-viewed games of the season. Last year, we saw LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and Ja Morant, who represent seven of the top-10 players in jersey sales. We also saw Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, the two finalists for 2022-23 NBA MVP award.
Like most major changes, the new Player Participation Policy will inevitably ruffle feathers, especially among some players. But it should also improve the NBA’s viewership numbers and result in more competitive games. There will probably be some bumps along the way, but fans will benefit as much as anyone. I only wish the league would have referenced the TV deal in announcing the rule as a means of transparency. But regardless of whether the league, owners and players get richer, it’ll be refreshing to see stars more frequently – and that’s probably the point.