Expanding their audiences

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They never will admit it publicly, but league commissioners and broadcast executives spend much of the year with their fingers crossed, hoping the postseason contains matchups fans will want to watch. They know that for every series featuring the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox there’s a series between the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators. And for every series that goes seven games, there’s another featuring a pedestrian four-game sweep.

So far this year, the NBA and NHL have been fortunate.

The audience for the NBA playoffs is up 31 percent on ABC and 28 percent on ESPN, driven by the intense Eastern Conference showdown between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. An average of 4.2 million households have tuned in through the conference semifinals, including a 41 percent jump in the coveted 18-to-34 male demographic.

Sunday’s Game 7 of the Celtics-Cavaliers series drew an average of 6.4 million households (a 5.7 rating), making it the fourth most-watched non-finals game on ABC.

The series had everything fans and broadcasters want: good teams, high-profile players and close games. It was a similar story for the Western Conference semifinals, in which a Kobe Bryant-fueled win by the Los Angeles Lakers over the Utah Jazz and a close, seven-game series between the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Hornets led to double-digit ratings increases on TNT.

Now fans will see Kobe vs. Tim Duncan in the West. And in the East, it’s the Pistons and Celtics, further igniting a rivalry that produced some tense battles during the regular season. A potential Lakers-Celtics final? David Stern is drooling.

The NHL, meanwhile, had been desperate for any good news about national television ratings and got it. Ratings were up 14 percent on NBC through the conference finals, with some games seeing increases of as much as 25 percent. (Granted, ratings are still a relatively low 1.6 on NBC, but it’s better than nothing.)

While the broadcasters likely are none too pleased with how quickly the Pittsburgh Penguins dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers, they are salivating at the Stanley Cup Finals matchup between Pittsburgh and the Detroit Red Wings. One team comes from a hockey-crazed market and has two of the best young players in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And the other is arguably the most accomplished hockey team of the last decade.

NotesESPN announced the new St. Petersburg Bowl will be played Dec. 20 at 6:30 p.m. The bowl, controlled by ESPN Regional Television, will feature opponents from the Big East and Conference USA. …

The nine-month celebration of Verizon Center’s 10th anniversary will start wrapping up tomorrow with a special charity luncheon featuring 31 local restaurants on the arena’s main concourse. For $10, fans can sample food from up to six of the restaurants. All proceeds will go to charity. Former Wizards Gheorghe Muresan and Ledell Eackles will attend. Tomorrow, the celebration will end with a community service day at Anacostia High School.

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