A funny thing happened on my slog through the baseball offseason: I fell back in love with the NBA. Well, maybe “in love” is too strong — let’s say we’re having a “friends with benefits” relationship while my one true love is studying abroad in the Carribbean. In any event I can list the teams in playoff contention in both conferences off the top of my head, or note that the Hornets have gone on a bit of a run since Eric Gordon came back, or chortle through the latest episode of Lakers’ schadenfreude with an enthusiasm I haven’t felt since the Jordan era. How did this happen?
The answer, it turns out, is pretty simple, and a good lesson for any professional sports league looking to draw their casual fans a little closer: access. I have a Roku player in lieu of cable. During baseball season, I used it to access MLB.TV, including a daily trip through the highlights over my morning coffee. With no baseball, I started looking for alternatives, and discovered that the NBA’s Roku channel allows me to watch highlights, examine the standings, even read the AP game recaps. On my TV. For free.
Why should MLB take note of this? Because you can currently only use the MLB.TV Roku channel if you are a paid subscriber — there’s no free content available. You can get more features (watching games live or on replay) if you have the NBA.TV package, but you don’t have to. Even more significantly, Major League Soccer and the NHL — two leagues desperately needing to grow their fan bases — follow the MLB subscribers only model. I make my own little NBA-centric SportsCenter every morning because that’s my only option. (Granted, until last week that actually was my only option, but let’s set the lockout aside for a moment.)
It’s not as if the NBA is going above and beyond, either — the free content is everything already available for free on their website, just formatted for the Roku. But I don’t turn on my computer in the mornings (too much of a time suck), and I wasn’t a regular visitor to NBA.com anyway. Now I’m not just a wake-me-for-the-playoffs fan; I’m a hey-who-won-last-night fan. In the long run, that’s the conversion every pro sports league wants. The NBA seems to have become the first league to figure out that it doesn’t really take that much effort to make that happen.