Points galore in NFL, NBA as rule changes take effect
By Thomas URBAIN
Baskets and touchdowns are raining down on the NBA and NFL this season as a slew of rule changes designed to reward attacking play and boost the marketability of America’s two biggest sports take hold.
In the NFL, the final day of regular season competition witnessed the 1,371st touchdown during the Indianapolis Colts’ defeat of the Tennessee Titans, a new record for touchdowns in a single season.
With teams combining for a total of 11,952 points, 2018 is also the second-most prolific scoring season in NFL history.
In the NBA, meanwhile, each of the league’s 30 teams are averaging more than 100 points per game, with the free-scoring Milwaukee Bucks topping the table with 117 points per game and Chicago on the lowest rung with 100.4.
Even the bruising arena of ice hockey has joined in the fun, with the National Hockey League seeing goals flying in from all angles at a rate not seen for more than a decade.
The various scoring sprees have been attributed to a confluence of factors, from the increasing willingness of teams to adopt attacking tactics to rule changes which have offered more protection for star players.
Boston Celtics legend Paul Pierce said the NBA’s desire to improve “freedom of movement” had helped create a more attack-oriented game.
“The NBA has been preaching freedom of movement for the last 10-plus years so it’s no surprise to me that they’re gearing everything towards the offense because let’s face it, offensive basketball is exciting to watch,” Pierce said on ESPN recently.
“When you see teams scoring 115, 130 points, it’s exciting for a fan. You don’t want to see a lot of grabbing, holding, bumping, team scoring in the eighties. That was my brand of basketball in the early 2000s.
“When I got back to watch, it wasn’t that exciting to watch. But now it’s geared more toward the offense. No more emphasis on defense. It’s an offensive era we’re in right now.”
– Increased ratings –
A similar ethos has prevailed in the NFL, where various scoring records have been torched by a phalanx of teams who have sorely tested the old adage that defense is the best form of attack.
Nowhere was this more evident than in November’s thrilling duel between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams, which finished with the Rams winning a classic 54-51. It was the first time in NFL history that two teams had scored more than 50 points in the same game.
Michael Lewis, a professor of marketing at Emory University, believes the spike in scoring can be explained at least partially by NFL moves to offer greater protection to quarterbacks.
“The NFL has pretty significant concerns related to injuries,” Lewis said.
“So a lot of the rule changes are really designed to protect quarterbacks and offensive players. But by doing so they’ve reduced the defensive ability to constrain the offense. It’s a really happy coincidence for the NFL.”
And if improving the marketability of the NFL was the aim, there are signs the strategy is paying off.
Figures released this week showed a five percent increase in ratings in 2018 compared with the 2017 regular season, even though this year’s average of 15.8 million viewers per game is still sharply lower than 2016 (16.5 million) and 2015 (17.9 million).
David Abrutyn, a partner in Bruin Sports Capital, a New York-based private equity firm that specializes in sports, media and marketing, believes spectators are naturally drawn to offense.
“If you look across sports, the idea of scoring and excitment that goes along, the plays that make that happen, people gravitate towards offense,” he said. “Excitment in offense can broadly be connected to fan interest and engagement and that is interesting in and of itself.
“Is there a direct correlation of turning on an economic engine by virtue of turning on the scoring? It’s probably worth exploring.”
– ‘YouTube generation’ –
Games rich in scoring highlights are also important for sports trying to appeal to the YouTube generation, who often prefer to watch edited highlights of individual games or clips posted on social media rather than sit through entire telecasts.
“Highlights and short-form content of compelling offense certainly falls into the category of drivers of economic and fan engagement, without question,” Abruytn said.
Lewis cautioned, however, that sports bodies must walk a fine line between tweaking rules to boost attractiveness while preserving a sport’s competitiveness.
“There’s definitely a segment of fans that’s unhappy with what the NFL has done where there’s a sense that it’s almost impossible to tackle a quarterback,” Lewis said.
“In the NBA in the 1970s, there was a feeling that the NBA had no defense whatsoever. It wasn’t an interesting game. It was almost like an exhibition with a lot of slam dunks. With excessive scoring, it wasn’t that interesting.”