- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

The NBA spin is starting well in advance of this year’s finals.

The league, soured with record-low TV ratings and often lackluster play for the 2003 series between San Antonio and New Jersey, is conducting the largest marketing campaign in its history to promote the 2004 finals. Leading the promotional push is none other than NBA commissioner David Stern. Basketball’s top boss held a luncheon yesterday in New York with ABC to begin several days of full-throttle hype for the Los Angeles-Detroit series beginning Sunday.

“Any relationship with the NBA is always a work in progress, and our relationship with the Walt Disney Company [corporate parent of ABC and ESPN] is an incredible work in progress,” Stern said.

League officials declined to place a dollar figure on the unprecedented level of promotion but given the involvement of each of its major corporate sponsors, the value is well into the tens of millions of dollars.

Even with Stern’s bullishness, the work will not be easy. The NBA is significantly aided by the return to the finals of the always popular Lakers, as well as sharply improved ratings on ESPN and TNT for both conference finals series from a year ago.

But the jury remains decidedly out on whether the NBA’s 2002 decision to move much of its TV exposure to cable will render permanent damage to its showcase event. With many fans unfamiliar with the storylines or players prominent through the playoffs, tune-out a year ago was massive and ratings plummeted 36 percent to an average of just 6.5. The average viewing audience of 9.9million per game represented barely a third of the typical draw during Michael Jordan’s last finals appearance in 1998 and about half the level for the 2001 series between the Lakers and Philadelphia.

Stifling defense and minimal scoring, beloved by many purists but often confounding to more casual fans, also remain the key buzzwords of the 2004 playoffs. Through the conference finals, teams failed to score 80 points in a game 38 times. Last year, just 11 such instances were registered through the first three rounds. Three of the NBA’s four lowest-scoring playoff games since the advent of the shot clock have happened in the last month, each involving the Pistons.

“We’re very excited. I think, between the NBA and ABC, we’re poised to have a terrific finals,” said George Bodenheimer, ESPN and ABC sports president. “We’ve got a terrific matchup, two top-10 markets. I know that the teams, L.A. and Detroit, are going to give us a fantastic series on the court.”

Such optimism also was in place before last year’s finals. Before the Nets-Spurs series, ABC commentator Bill Walton said, “I think this is going to be the most exciting finals in quite a long time” — a statement nobody, even Walton himself, would agree with now.

Perhaps most challenging for any NBA or ABC marketer is convincing fans that the Pistons have a legitimate chance to win. Early odds from Las Vegas bookmakers all point heavily in favor of Los Angeles.

“The Pistons are very similar to the Lakers in that they also often play to the level of their opponent. Detroit needs to dictate the terms of conflict,” Walton said. “I don’t think you can beat the Lakers playing a stand-around type game.”


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