The NBA is entering a new season with something that has been decidedly lacking in past years: momentum.
The league and its broadcast partners are expecting a wave of energy stemming from the ultracompetitive playoff series that drew millions of new viewers in the spring, and they also are encouraged by offseason moves that suggest an improved level of parity among teams.
“I’ve never seen a depth of talent and intensity of coming competition I see for this year,” commissioner David Stern said. “I haven’t seen that in the decades I’ve been associated with the NBA. As a basketball fan, I just can’t imagine a more exciting year than the one we’re about to have.”
Last year’s NBA playoffs had a sizable jump in ratings, with ESPN airing several of its most watched basketball games ever with the Western Conference semifinals and finals. In some cases, ratings were 65 percent higher than comparable games in 2008. The playoffs were characterized by a host of competitive games and series, including the first-round Eastern Conference matchup between the Celtics and Bulls, in which four games went into overtime.
“We wholeheartedly believe it’s going to carry over,” said Doug White, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “I think the NBA and the NBA players have really been on a hot streak the last year and a half. I think the league is in a really good place right now.”
Analysts who cover the NBA said the list of potential storylines this year is long, starting with the Lakers’ attempt to repeat and LeBron James’ continued efforts to win a title with the Cavaliers. The league could also have an improvement in competitive balance, they said.
“What’s exciting for me will be the second-tier teams,” ESPN analyst Jon Barry said. “We have the great teams; I think there are four in each division that are great, and I’m looking forward to the race for the other spots and the other close battles for teams looking to get into the playoffs.”
The dark cloud amid all the optimism stems from the economy, which led to lower revenue last season and continues to depress sales of tickets and sponsorships. The NBA still is expected to see only marginal revenue growth, if any, this season as the economy has held down ticket sales. Stern said season ticket renewals have averaged about 75 percent, down nearly 5 percent from last year, but that arenas will be about 90 percent full. Sales of new season tickets are up slightly from last season as most teams have either lowered prices or kept them flat.
“All in all, we think we’re going to be OK this year, but we have to face the reality that joblessness has increased, mortgage foreclosures have increased, various markets are in difficult space,” Stern said. “But I think we will be viewed as relatively recession-resistant.”
Looking ahead, the NBA also has a potential labor fight brewing, with Stern insisting that the league will pursue adjustments to its collective bargaining agreement with players after the 2010-11 season. Several teams are suffering millions of dollars in financial losses, and there has been speculation about a possible lockout of players. But for the league and its broadcasters, that’s of little concern as this season kicks off.
“I don’t think fans get focused on that until it’s happening,” White said. “Leading up to it, I don’t think it’s on anybody’s mind. Hopefully things will get resolved before the deadline is up, and it won’t be something that factors into people’s viewing habits or thoughts.”