Looking at the year in review the message was as clear as a LeBron James slam dunk: the NBA wants to attract Canadian sports bettors.
And in 2021 the league wasted little time.
The NBA made a clear commitment to court Canadian bettors with sponsorship deals and partnerships with a pair of major sportsbooks to handle its Northern affairs.
2021 was a year full of turbulence, flexibility and readjustments for the world’s best basketball league.
But interestingly, on the topic of the Canadian sports betting market, the league did not waver.
Year in review: NBA doubles down on Canadian sports betting
The writing for the NBA’s full-court press on Canadian bettors may have been on the wall.
When single-event betting became legal on Aug.27, the Canadian sports landscape changed forever. Operators have since thrived, and forecasters now estimate the industry could bank as much as $25 billion/per year.
Considering that, it may not have been a difficult decision for The Association.
The first dynamo fell via an NBA – Ontario Lottery Gaming Corporation partnership.
Both parties worked together for a celebratory short film series that honoured the NBA’s 75th anniversary season.
The occasion allowed five Canadian filmmakers to debut their works at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
Officially dubbed “NBA Films for Fans created with OLG,” the program saw each film release during the NBA season.
The occasion allowed viewers to see a clear connection between the NBA and a recognized Canadian operator.
NBA scores double-double with DraftKings, FanDuel partnerships
The slam dunk came in November, however.
As two of the leading sportsbooks in the US, the deal marked a significant commitment to Canada.
Consider the league already employs the pair to handle its betting needs in the US – where its market reach is strongest.
To see such heavy hitters in the Canadian market must say something about the potential ROI NBA executives see.
“DraftKings and FanDuel are market leaders who have been incredible partners in engaging with millions of NBA fans who enjoy fantasy and betting,” said Scott Kaufman-Ross, senior vice president, head of gaming & new business ventures, NBA, via a statement at the time of the announcement.
“DraftKings and FanDuel sit are the center of the continued convergence between media and sports betting, and, together, we are excited to bring these unique content experiences to our fans.”
NBA draws criticism for 2021 handling of COVID-19
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though, in 2021.
With COVID-19 continuing to plague the sports world, the NBA was no exception.
The league came under heavy criticism in 2021 for its handling of the virus.
Critics argue the business’ policy lacked consistency. Others believed a break in play would have preserved the quality of the competition.
Consider that for the action to continue, the league needed “replacement” or “hardship” players on the court. In fact, by Dec. 27, 2021, the league set a record (541) for the number of players in a single season.
Yet the 2021 – 2022 campaign is not even halfway complete.
Games went on with almost exclusively replacement players at times. Matches have gone forward with depleted rosters (eight players is league minimum).
Stars have missed multiple nationally televised high-profile match-ups (Kevin Durant, Dec. 25th) due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
And the league had to cancel multiple games altogether.
Impacts of a diluted NBA product remains a mystery
But don’t expect the NBA to succumb to public pressure anytime soon.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is emphatic the league will continue to play.
He reiterated the NBA – as everyone else – will have to learn to deal with the current reality.
“The virus, unfortunately, isn’t going anywhere,” Silver said when addressing the issue on Dec. 21 at a presser.
The lasting impact of such an approach remains to be determined.
But it will surely be difficult for fans and sports bettors to navigate.
Even the most die-hard NBA fans would be hard-pressed to rattle off the majority of replacement players currently.
Detractors argue that makes for a diluted product.
From a betting perspective, it would logically make many basketball-betting enthusiasts a tad more hesitant.
After all, betting on the event will be like a shot in the dark if you don’t know who is playing.
Antetokounmpo, James, Curry kept fans engaged in 2021
With all that said, there were many historic moments on the hardwood in 2021.
The biggest storyline came via the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2020 – 2021 season. The franchise finally broke through and won their first NBA championship in 50 years.
Its star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was catapulted into all-time status with his superb performance.
Another megastar, LeBron James, continued his march towards being the No.1 scorer in NBA history.
The current mark – 38,387 set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – was seen as unbeatable by many experts. But in December, James toppled 36,000 points – becoming just the third player to do so.
He now sits less than 2,000 points away from making history and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Sharpshooter Stephen Curry, meanwhile, also got busy breaking records.
He now holds the all-time three-point mark for made triples.
2021 a rollercoaster season for the NBA
So, in the end, yes, 2021 saw the NBA irk disengaged fans and potential bettors.
Undoubtedly, the fan experience suffered due to COVID-19 protocols (but that was true for every league).
But for every seemingly dull moment that occurred, there was also a marquee or historic breakthrough to pick the league back up.
Not only that, but these moments seemed to be shared with legends of the game such as James, Curry and Antetokounmpo.
And that allowed fans to reattach themselves with the brand in the end.
With the NBA celebrating 75 years of operations, it was an opportune time for the league to play off that milestone.
The result was multiple business partnerships in the Canadian market, sports betting taking centre stage and star players helping to salvage a rollercoaster season.