- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

As the NBA begins anew tonight, the league is a mess of contradictions.

On one hand, media and fan interest is at fever pitch for the debut of No.1 overall pick LeBron James in Cleveland. League marketers are expecting a 20 percent surge in merchandise sales to a best-ever $3billion. International interest and participation in the NBA continues to mushroom at unprecedented rates.

But the NBA is also coming off a campaign in which the NBA Finals posted its worst TV ratings by far and average attendance inched down for the fourth time in seven years. Michael Jordan, for the first time in nearly four years, has no formal role with any NBA team.

And there’s a certain upcoming criminal trial in Colorado that threatens to shift significant focus from the court to the courtroom.

The result is a season opening as arguably the most muddled in the last decade.

“There’s a lot of positive stories out there for the NBA, not the least of which are LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. And you can never count [commissioner] David Stern out,” said Ryan Schinman, a New York-based marketing consultant who frequently works with pro athletes.

“But right now, there’s just not a lot of talk out there about the NBA, and there’s this big black cloud hanging over [Los Angeles Lakers star] Kobe Bryant. You add to that many of the major TV markets, such as New York, Chicago and Miami, are the ones with the weakest, least attractive teams.”

Bryant’s upcoming sexual assault trial in Eagle, Colo., presents the greatest challenge to the league, as well as the least direct control. Bryant for years has been a icon of the league, combining his prodigious talent with a made-for-Hollywood smile and squeaky-clean image.

That has all changed as the details of Bryant’s August encounter with his accuser continue to be disclosed. A trial date has not been set, but the possibility of Bryant missing games to be in court looms large, not to mention a potential life sentence in jail if he’s convicted.

League and Lakers officials will have little control over Bryant’s schedule and must sit back and watch as Bryant is depicted by prosecutors as a violent felon. The next hearing in the case is Nov.10, when Bryant will be advised of his rights, the charges against him and the possible penalties.

Stern insists that once play begins in earnest, the public obsession with Bryant’s legal troubles will wane. That belief already has been buttressed by a re-emerging on-court feud between Bryant and Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal.

“It becomes a function of us getting the ball thrown up,” Stern said. “As a basketball matter, there’s going to be a lot more interest in our game. Kobe is going to be someone who has allegations pending, and they’ll be dealt with in the normal course.”

The NBA’s switch of much of its national television coverage last year from network TV to cable also remains without a firm verdict. ESPN and TNT benefited mightily from the conversion during the regular season, using the NBA to beat out the programming it replaced on its schedules.

But once New Jersey and San Antonio reached the finals, America at large did not have a great familiarity or interest in the matchup. The average rating of 6.5 for the finals, translating to about 7million U.S. television households, was beaten handily not only by comparable events from the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR, but also the Masters, Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, the NCAA basketball’s Final Four and all four BCS bowl games in college football.

ABC and ESPN, whose NBA coverage was criticized in many corners after years of familiarity and professionalism from NBC, both have changed some coverage plans and announcer teams. Foremost among the changes is legendary play-by-play man Al Michaels, who will add the NBA to his duties along with his customary spot on “Monday Night Football.”

“We’re champing at the bit to get going again on the NBA,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. “We learned a lot last season. There are things we will do better, and we’re anticipating a great season.”

Perhaps the clearest success story for the NBA is its merchandising. Fueled primarily by the throwback jersey craze that has burned white-hot for nearly two years, league executives are predicting record sales for the 2003-04 campaign. Also adding to the surging retail interest is the entry of James and Anthony to the league and new uniforms in Denver, Cleveland, Houston, Orlando, Toronto and Phoenix.

“It’s quite apparent there has been a fundamental reconnection between fashion and sports, and the NBA has been a clear beneficiary,” said Sal LaRocca, NBA senior vice president of global marketing. “Some of this growth is coming at the expense of other brands, and the best thing is that we still have a chest of [merchandising] ideas that we will continue to bring out.”

Taking a cue from other major leagues that heavily market the beginnings of their seasons, the NBA is implementing “Premiere Week.” The broad promotional effort, backed by more than $30million worth of TV exposure, will highlight all the major changes of the new NBA season, including new coaching hires, free agent moves, the league’s global growth and rookie entries.

The effort is critical for the NBA. Arguably no other major sports league opens with as little fanfare or suffers more of an early season letdown in buzz once play begins.

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