16, 82, 162 …

How did the NBA and other sports leagues decide how many games to play in a season?

Following the lockout, the NBA will have 66 regular-season games instead of the usual 82

Photograph by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

Following a labor-dispute lockout, the 2011-12 NBA regular season tipped off on Christmas day with an abbreviated 66-game schedule. The season usually comprises 82 games, played from October to April. How did the league arrive at the number 82?

It allows teams to play around three times per week for half the year. Until the NBA was formed in 1946, professional basketball leagues played a few dozen games in each season—similar to what happens in the NCAA—and held most of these contests on weekends. With the creation of the new league, players were asked to quit their day jobs and participate in a more rigorous schedule. At first there were 11 teams playing 60 games each, but the nascent business had to downsize for its next season, to seven teams playing 48 games each. Having more games would, in the end, lead to more ticket sales and higher profits (and owners were already filling players’ off-days with exhibition games), so the season gradually lengthened. As new franchises came up across the country, the number of regular season matchups grew until it reached the modern total of 82 games for the 1967-68 season.

Why did the owners stop at 82? Several factors were taken into account. First, the league needed to balance income from ticket sales (and television deals) with the cost of player salaries and other expenses involved with running a franchise. Another issue is the fact that playing an overlong schedule can damage the athletes’ bodies. With those concerns in mind, the owners made the somewhat arbitrary decision that 80 games played over nearly six months would be both profitable and feasible. Players started working this schedule in the early 1960s, and it changed only very slightly as the league expanded. By the 1967-68 season, the NBA had grown to include 12 teams, split into two conferences. A given franchise would play each of its five conference rivals eight times, and then each of the remaining teams seven times. This 82-game total (five times eight, plus six times seven) persisted even as the league grew to its present size, with 30 teams.

The season lengths for other sports were determined in a similar way. Baseball players, for example, were deemed capable of playing back-to-back-to-back games without fear of injury. In 1876, the National League of Professional Baseball debuted with eight teams playing a 70-game schedule (two or three games per week) from April through October. The game grew over the next few decades, until it stabilized in 1920 with 16 teams averaging about 6 games per week, twice as many as are played in basketball. A full season consisted of 154 games, reflecting the fact that Major League Baseball was divided into two sets of eight teams: A club would play each of its seven rivals 22 times. By 1962, the leagues had expanded to 10 teams, and the 154-game schedule no longer divided evenly. (Each team would have to play nine others, and you can’t divide 154 by nine without a fraction.) Having teams play 17 games against each opponent would have yielded a 153-game season, but one that was unbalanced—meaning that teams would have unequal numbers of home and away games. If the league had nudged that number down to 16 games, the schedule would have ended up too short (144 games). So instead MLB decided to push up to 18 games against each rival, nine home and nine away, for the modern total of 162 games per season.

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Explainer thanks Bill Himmelman of Sports Nostalgia Research, Mike Teevan of Major League Baseball, and Mike Wade of the National Basketball Association.