Making Sense Of Load Management

Strategically rehabilitating injuries to Kawhi Leonard & others has led to postseason success.

by Paul West

Load management. Two words that have become loaded with implication, and surrounded by controversy, in the sports world. On one hand, it was introduced out of necessity and has actually contributed to late-season success; the 2012 San Antonio Spurs were criticized for occasionally resting their top players in nationally televised games, but they also made the NBA Finals that year and won consecutive titles in 2013-14–partly because their aging core (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker) were healthy down the stretch. On the other hand, it can be rightly upsetting to fans when they pay exorbitant amounts for tickets to see their favorite players–sometimes who only come to their town once or twice all season–and those players are strategically rested without prior announcement. Even worse, sometimes a fan will have traveled a long way and/or made complicated arrangements en route to the game, compounding their frustration and sense of loss.

Unfortunately for fans, there’s not enough to incentivize teams announcing players’ rest days ahead of time. If teams announce that a star player will be rested, some fans may decide to skip the game; in this case, even though the ticket remains sold, the venue loses whatever money that person (and possibly their guests) would have spent at the venue. From team merchandise to food and beverages, to alcohol in various forms and other things like parking, team venues and their subcontractors stand to lose significantly by announcing that their main-draw players will be sitting out a game.

The specifics may vary between sports and leagues, but core problem is that multiple sets of legitimate and defensible interests–all of them important to the health and flourishing of a professional sports league–are in direct conflict here.

The Best Argument For Load Management Is Player Health

At first glance, some fans will say, ‘they get lots of money to play, they should be available for every game.’ But this ignores the larger picture, and a lot of important variables.

Professional athletes, especially at the highest levels, train harder off the field of play (or ice, or court) than ever before. Players have gotten bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled at the same time, and the level of actual physical intensity has continuously increased over generations–and the level of athletic, physical, and spatial demands on their bodies has increased as a result. Concurrently, regular seasons have continued to get longer. It’s not hard to imagine how all of this has led to more soft-tissue and wear-and-tear injuries among everyday players.

Wouldn’t it have been better if Larry Bird had benefited from sports science’s current knowledge of the importance of rest and rehabilitation–and not had his career shortened by a bad back? What if Sandy Koufax didn’t have to hold a somber press conference announcing his retirement at the peak of his powers, or Grant Hill had properly rehabbed his initial ankle injury and not suffered one compensation injury after another, leaving NBA fans to wonder what could have been?

Isn’t it good that player longevity is better than ever–players peak for longer–while overall athleticism and skill are at all-time highs?

Of course, the attendant problems do need to be addressed; but it shouldn’t come at risk of player health or longevity.

Solution To Load Management? Scheduling

The only viable solution is to manage the intrinsic load put upon players, by shortening seasons and reducing the number of consecutive games that teams play. This will make it easier for high-impact, high-usage players to make it through a full season healthy and in top form. It’ll stop fans from having to deal with the unexpected absence of marquis players, and franchises and arenas from dealing with the consequences. Yes, revenue will be lost in terms of airtime and game day attendance; but load management-related losses in attendance and revenue will help offset this, and the lack of bad press will have a value all its own. Major League Baseball could shorten the season to an even 150 games, and the NBA and NHL could shorten their seasons to 70 or 75. That doesn’t sound like much, but a week’s worth of games distributed across an entire season will factor have a huge ripple effect; and in the long run, it might mean we get to see more of the best players in action for more aggregate time.


One thought on “Making Sense Of Load Management

  1. The comments you made about Grant Hill and Sandy Koufax also reminded me of when Peter Forsberg tried to come back after his foot issues forced him to retire, presumably earlier than he otherwise would have. Could his career have been extended? I guess we’ll never know. Interesting piece, Paul. Thanks!


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