The NBA Finals are currently in full swing and the 2018-2019 NBA season is progressing ever slowly towards it's inevitable conclusion. The Playoffs last a full two months of the official calendar, with the four rounds eating up all of April through June each year. As of this writing, there are less than two weeks left in the campaign. Three Finals games are already in the books and if this series between Golden State and Toronto goes the distance, one of these elite squads will be hoisting the Larry O'Brian trophy sometime during the late hours of June 16th. Hoops fans that follow this epic journey to basketball supremacy for eight months are hit with an enormous void once official games cease to appear on the NBA feed. The feeling can be described as something between disappointment and all out dread. If you have watched an entire TV series that you truly enjoyed from beginning to end, you are all too familiar with these feelings. When something you've invested your time and energy into for months suddenly goes away, it's a tough pill to swallow.
Fortunately, we are quite spoiled in the NBA world. Just 19 days after game 7 concludes (if we get a game 7 of course), the 2019 NBA Summer League will commence and we will once again get our fix of competitive basketball action. This year, the action will run from July 5th to July 15th and a record 32 teams will be in attendance. In addition to attendance from all 30 teams of the association, two teams from international waters will travel to the desert for the first time. This isn't a new phenomenon, of course. The Summer League in its current form has been around since 2001 and Las Vegas has been a host since 2004. Some of the greatest players in history like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Durant have taken part in the mid-summer festivities. But even those legendary rookies couldn't save the league from a sluggish following during its infancy. Most people probably just saw the Summer League as a glorified tryout littered with fringe NBA talents.
Well, they were half right. Summer League has always functioned as a way for athletes struggling to gain traction in the league, or struggling to get there at all a chance to showcase their skills and make a good impression on NBA royalty. This is probably the first big selling point for the league that simply wasn't there when things got started in the early 2000s. When the action migrated south to Orlando for the first time in 2002, the games were actually closed to the public. It's obviously harder to market and advertise a brand new league when people can't simply walk in and see for themselves.
Thankfully, the last few years have ushered in an entirely new era of basketball where games are accessible by pretty much any means necessary. Social media has taken off, the league offers daily ticket passes for every game that takes on campus, and there are even options to view games in virtual reality based on where you're watching from. The technological advancements that we've seen take hold in such a short time are definitely a factor in record attendance for the league. Additionally, the interest in NBA action at any level, has also never been higher, which obviously helps even if a weird blend of rookies, old vets, and borderline players all convene for a week and a half within a college campus. So what do those record attendance numbers look like these days? Based off of information gathered from Forbes.com, total attendance in 2018 hit an all-time high of 139,972. That's quite astounding for an event that used to feature a gathering of four teams and a few league representatives in an understated meeting of sorts. The numbers are no less impressive when looking at how many people tuned in from home. According to an official NBA release, “The 2018 event was the most-watched NBA Summer League ever, with ESPN and NBA TV combining to amass 30.4 million hours viewed. Fans across social media platforms accounted for more than 565 million video views, an increase of 35 percent from the previous year.”
It was merely an event in it's infancy, but that is no longer the case. Today, the NBA Summer League has grown to be an unique experience all its own.
There are several factors that have contributed to the rise in attendance and viewership figures year after year. For starters, there is no shortage of television coverage. NBA TV and ESPN are on site with several of their key staff members. Doris Burke, Steve Smith, Jared Greenberg, Mike Jones, and plenty more recognizable faces can be seen covering all of the matchups. It's pretty incredible that all of the Summer League games are now televised in some form or passion. The NBA doesn't treat this league like some knock-off or junior level experience. You will find all of the same top level writers, analysts, reporters, and other media members on site hyping up the exhibition matches.
Another key component in the popularity spike is the backing by the most prominent figures in the sport. For any team that is competing in July, you are sure to find at least a couple of high level starters from the team make the trip to cheer on their (potential) future teammates. Even LeBron James isn't shy about showing up to the UNLV campus to check out who the Lakers have coming through the developmental pipeline.
It was mentioned during the broadcast that fans had that their phones out all over the arena trying to capture a quick shot of LeBron on the bench. You could also see it a few seconds in the video if you look into the front rows of the stands. Even casual fans are well aware of the aura that follows players like LeBron and Curry, so they will show up to display their support even if they aren't familiar with 90% of the names on the Summer League rosters. The king's appearance last year is only the tip of the iceberg too. It's not just players who gather to watch the exhibition games...it's literally turned into a giant reunion for NBA members of every level and position. Coaches, scouts, and general managers can be spotted at a game at any moment.
It's one thing if the NBA marketing and media teams are the ones advertising the games, but the absolute best sales pitches will always come from those who are actually on the court getting buckets. If established players like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal are willing to take hours and days out of their Summer vacations to offer their support and opinions on what they're seeing transpire on the court, then fans are much more likely to give their time as well. Lillard in particular is one of the more famous Summer League alums since he won the only Co-MVP award in 2012 along with former Kansas star Josh Shelby. (It's still a shame that he didn't stick in the league. His highlight tapes are the stuff of legend.) Lillard and dozens of others who went through those exhibition games know better than anyone how important and impactful it is to get an experience like Summer League fresh out of college. It is not a predictor of future success by any means, but it can serve as a confidence boost and point of accelerated growth for rookies and sophomores. Lillard used that MVP designation as a springboard into his first full NBA season, where he added on a Rookie of the Year award after posting solid averages of 19.1 ppg, 3.1 reb, and 6.5 ast on 54% true shooting.
Yes, they are only exhibition games, but league took measures to up the significance of each game by introducing a single-elimination tournament to top each year's July run. This new format took hold in 2013, the year after Damian Lillard's magical run. This surely helped draw in more fans as well. A league is much more fun to follow if it contains some sort of culmination at the finish and a tangible object that is awarded to the best performing teams and players. The 2018 semifinals duel might have been the most compelling game its five year tournament run, due to the exploits of league standouts Josh Hart and Colin Sexton.
Storylines draw in attention in the world of sports almost more than the game action itself and this game was set up perfectly with a key duel between a lottery pick rookie and a key contributor on the most popular team of the 2018 offseason, the Lakers. Hart came out to prove he was head and shoulders above anyone else on a Summer League roster and Sexton was out for blood in his first taste of NBA action.
What some aren't aware of is the wealth of activities available off the court. For the past few years, fans of all ages have been able to take part in autograph signings, arcade games, draft combine simulators, and other special experiences that you can only get by visiting Vegas.
You may notice that the word experience has been thrown around quite a bit here, and for good reason. The NBA has been hard at work for several years now at improving the overall image of the league. They are doing a fantastic job by successfully transforming this 1.5 week annual basketball showcase into an entity that's greater than the sum of its parts. One look at the dictionary and the difference between an event and an experience is crystal clear.
a. something that happens : OCCURRENCE
b: a noteworthy happening
c: a social occasion or activity
the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation
I decided to key in on this one definition of experience, because it most accurately conveys the point I am attempting to make. For far too long, fans of professional basketball saw the Summer League as a basic activity that happens on a constant basis like a school day or a weekend. There is nothing special about that. It is what it is. But here in this very moment, we can confidently describe the Summer League to others as something we feel as opposed to something we see.