This season's playoffs will mark the most-watched collection of NBA games in years, even if the so-called dream matchup between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant never comes to fruition.
Powered by a flurry of tense games and long series, viewership for all playoff games on ESPN has risen more than 10 percent over last year, an increase bolstered by a series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets that included the two most-watched NBA games ever on cable television. More than 6 million households tuned into Game 3 of that series on ABC, making it the most-viewed conference finals game in history.
Meanwhile, ratings for playoff games shown on TNT, which has broadcast the NBA since 1988, surged nearly 15 percent.
"What you've been seeing with these playoffs is really the best form of reality television," said Doug White, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. "It's unscripted, you don't know what you're going to get from night to night, and it has all of the drama and suspense you could ever hope for."
Indeed, few expected Bryant and the Lakers to face a tough test against the Nuggets, who tied the Western Conference finals at 2-2 with a win Monday night. And few predicted James and the Cleveland Cavaliers would face as stiff a challenge as they have from the Orlando Magic.
The absence of James, Bryant or both from the NBA Finals could be seen as an anticlimactic end to an otherwise engrossing playoffs.
"Clearly you want Cleveland and the Lakers if you're the NBA despite the fact that they will protest and say they don't care," said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm.
NBA and network officials downplayed the potential James-Bryant matchup, saying the league is less reliant than ever on a small roster of stars. A series featuring the Magic's Dwight Howard or the Nuggets' Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony still would draw big numbers, they said.
"I think the one thing the NBA has proven most certainly over the last couple of years is that the league is not built on just one or two players," White said. "I wouldn't say the finals is a make-or-break based on the participation of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James."
Even if that matchup fails to materialize, the playoffs to this point have provided the league and its broadcasters with precisely what they root for: long series filled with tense, competitive games.
The postseason began with a historic series between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics that lasted seven games, five of which went into overtime. Five other series lasted at least six games, and the Lakers-Nuggets series is certain to go at least that many.
"It has been a tremendous run," Turner Sports president David Levy said. "I think there's huge buzz back in the NBA. Anecdotally, when I travel around the country people are talking about the NBA and these games. And we've seen it in the ratings. The games have been terrific. If you're a sports fan, you're tuning in."
The ratings appear to validate Turner, which signed an eight-year extension of its broadcast deal in 2007 that included a takeover of the league's cable and digital operations.
The compelling playoffs come after years of generally static ratings for the NBA, though ratings did tick up this past regular season. The NBA was expected to report a modest increase in revenue as the economic recession led to slower sales of tickets and sponsorships.
"What the NBA has to hope for is that down the stretch here the games continue to be interesting, and the ebb and flow of the series featuring great personalities has to continue," Carter said. "If [the NBA] can end the season with some great momentum, it may give them some financial cover heading into next season at a time when perhaps the economy will be coming back and fans and sponsors will be really interested in following what they're up to during the offseason."