Niyo: As the sports world tries to reengage, it's time to get creative

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They often make it sound like they’re reinventing the wheel, these commissioners and owners and league executives. And for once, maybe it’s not much of an exaggeration.

Just listening to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman describe his league’s revised format for its draft lottery on Tuesday probably sent some of you into concussion protocol.

Gary Bettman

“This is a bit complicated, as if what I’ve already told you hasn’t been,” Bettman said after he’d unveiled the NHL’s plans for deciding a Stanley Cup champion. “And I apologize for that.”

But apologies aside — and the league definitely didn’t do the Red Wings any favors, by the way — here’s the bottom line: If necessity is the mother of all inventions, maybe this pandemic will help sports reinvent themselves in ways fans ultimately can appreciate.

That’s the hope, anyway, spurred by just a few of the made-for-TV events we’ve already seen as professional leagues and broadcast partners are forced to get creative to produce live sports programming for the masses these days.

It worked for the NFL, which plowed ahead with its offseason and then received rave reviews — from inside the league and out — for its successful virtual draft in April.

Or take Sunday’s celebrity golf showcase, as another example. The real benefit of “The Match 2,” featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, was the $20 million it raised for charity, obviously. But the unexpected benefits are still out there if the PGA Tour — and other sports entities that surely were watching — are willing to think outside the box, as it seems some are.

Much of what we saw Sunday at Medalist Golf Club will be hard to replicate, of course. Putting together a foursome of Hall of Famers — with 20 major championship wins and eight Super Bowl rings between them — sending them out on a private course in a downpour with live microphones, and piping in on-course commentary from Charles Barkley, Justin Thomas and other sports stars, produced some pants-splitting fun. But it wasn’t a real competition —  Tiger and Phil were even wearing shorts (gasp!) — and nobody’s job was at stake.

Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods pose with a  $20 million  COVID relief check after Manning and Woods won "The Match: Champions for Charity" Sunday.

Still, in the absence of other live sporting events, the match also produced some huge television ratings, averaging 5.8 million viewers on a holiday weekend and making it the most most-watched golf telecast in the history of cable TV. The charity event also was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter all day — mostly at Brady’s expense as he sprayed shots all over the front nine and sulked about it like one of the guys on your golf trip.

“It was a little awkward, I’m not gonna lie,” Manning laughed, as he recapped how it all played out in an interview on "The Rich Eisen Show" Tuesday.

But the truth is, when it comes to the games people play — and watch — all bets are off at the moment. Which is all the more reason why the folks in charge need to gamble a little. Even as they try to cut their losses, whether that means pushing the envelope with in-game eavesdropping and behind-the-scenes access — the PGA Tour has a golden opportunity there when it resumes play next month and makes its way to Detroit for the Rocket Mortgage Classic over the July 4th weekend — or throwing out some of the old playbooks when it comes to scheduling and the like.

That seems like close to a sure thing for the NBA, which can use a delayed finish to the 2019-20 season to push back the start of next season — and future ones — from late October to late December.

Mark Cuban

“Historically, over the summer you have fewer households using television, but the game has changed dramatically,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “And so starting Christmas Day now, I think really allows us to take more of the focus as the NFL starts to wind down their season and it allows us to go into the summer, post-NFL — and post-NHL for that matter — and really have that period of time to ourselves.”

That was the case for NASCAR, too, as it revved its engines and reaped some rewards for being the first U.S. sport to return to action this spring, first with its simulated iRacing series that drew surprising TV ratings and then with a fan-less restart at Darlington Raceway after a 10-week hiatus. And now NASCAR officials are making up for lost time — and revenue — with a condensed schedule that also includes prime-time racing on weeknights, something stock-car fans haven’t seen since the mid-1980s. Will it stick?

“As long as the TV ratings are good,” said Kevin Harvick, who won that first race back at Darlington two weeks ago. “That's what drives our sport, the amount of people watching TV. If the TV ratings are good, it's good for everybody.”

And if you ask Denny Hamlin, who won the rain-shortened Toyota 500 last Wednesday, “Everything needs to copy-and-paste. Certainly, I think, there's an opportunity for us to own the summer where there's less sports going on.

Kevin Harvick (4) makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday in Darlington, S.C.

“I mean, NASCAR has a great fan base as it is, no matter what's on TV. But I think the fans and a lot of people have spoken about midweek races. It's unfortunate that we're in the position that we are, that it's forced our hand to do it. But I'm really happy that we've got the opportunity now to be on a bigger stage on our own during prime-time on a weeknight.”

For now, at least.

Major League Baseball is busy trying to find a way to return later this summer and reclaim its territory, with a more regional schedule and an expanded postseason. So are the NHL and the NBA, as those two leagues try to finish the 2019-20 season and give TV rights-holders a playoff payday that was contractually promised. Among the return-to-play proposals that’ve been discussed in both leagues are some ideas that are long-overdue for implementation. And others that are worth a look, at least.

The NHL’s plan includes an expanded playoff field with a play-in round featuring best-of-five series, before embarking on a more-traditional Stanley Cup playoffs. That’ll bring more major-market teams into the mix this year, and perhaps a few wrinkles that’ll be worth considering in the future, including a return to reseeding between rounds.

The NBA, meanwhile, has some intriguing options on the table, including a 20-team playoff proposal that would feature a World Cup-style group stage before advancing to three rounds of traditional best-of-seven series. With the league focused on playing all the remaining games at one location — Disney’s sports complex in Orlando — it also paves the way for a format many have lobbied for in the past, seeding playoff teams 1 through 16 without consideration of conferences. Travel was often cited as a reason not to go that route, but now that won’t be an issue.

Frankly, with so many obstacles in the way and so few expectations, it actually makes it easier to give some of these ideas a shot. Especially with no fans in the stands to worry about, and plenty of worries about how many will be there when they are allowed back.

“I want to change things around,” Cuban said. “You know me, I’m a mover and a shaker. I want to experiment. … I think we’ve got to change it up some. We can’t just go the old tried-and-true way.”

They can’t, and it appears they won’t. If it doesn’t work, so be it. As Cuban explained Tuesday, “We’ll test it out first. We’ll see how the market responds.” But based on the early returns, they might be surprised what they find.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo