Wednesday, May 5, 2004

The NBA never has been hotter.

The NBA never has been more dull and irrelevant.

Determining which is closer to the truth never has been more difficult.

If one looks at indicators such as merchandise sales, Internet traffic, international exposure and the halo surrounding Rookie of the Year LeBron James, the NBA is enjoying a thriving, surprisingly robust post-Michael Jordan era. The NBA is projecting $3.3billion in licensed merchandise sales for the 2003-04 season, best in pro sports, 154 percent above its total three years ago, and the first time it will top the mighty NFL in this category.

But if one judges by TV ratings and play on the court, the story is decidedly different. TV coverage of the ongoing playoffs is routinely being topped by NASCAR races, the NFL Draft and even baseball in certain markets. And aesthetically, one need look no further than Monday’s New Jersey-Detroit game, a 78-56 brickfest that set a new league playoff record for fewest total points in a half.

“It is definitely unusual to see that wide a gap in the primary indicators of a league’s health,” said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports industry consultant.

In fairness, the NBA is not totally backsliding with regard to TV ratings. Regular-season viewership on ESPN grew 8 percent compared to last year, and TNT was up 17 percent. ABC, which aired 14 games, dropped 8 percent. During the first round of this year’s playoffs, TNT stayed flat compared to 2003 and ESPN increased its average rating 5 percent.

But the broader issue is that since the NBA chose two years ago to move much of its TV exposure from network TV to cable, viewership has eroded considerably, most notably for the sport’s marquee events. Numbers such as the average of 12.4million homes generated by NBC for the 2001 NBA Finals, much less the massive numbers of the Jordan era, are now virtually impossible to reach.

TV ad sales for pro basketball have followed commensurately, dropping from $769.4million in 2002 to $579.4million last year, according to New York-based TNS Media Intelligence. That total also includes spending on the WNBA, but much of the decrease owes to the men.

With no broad, mainstream buzz generated on a constant basis, one can more easily understand how ratings for last year’s NBA Finals plummeted 36 percent to an all-time low, or how the recent NFL Draft outdrew a New Orleans-Miami playoff game by nearly a 4-to-1 margin. A protracted, TV-induced playoff schedule, one in which a seven-game series can take 18 days to complete, provides little help for a casual fan to become engrossed in a developing story line.

Nor does a brutal, defensive postseason in which teams have failed to reach 80 points in a game 13 times during the first round. Just five such low-scoring affairs were registered in the first round last year.

“[The shift] is obviously great for ESPN, but for the NBA? The audience size is a fraction of what it used to be,” Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports chairman, said recently. “What is your chance of reaching the casual fan now? If you want to grow, you have to be out in front of the country. As you gravitate to cable, you will get the money, but what is your opportunity to reach the casual viewer and make that person a branded lover of your sport? That is what is lost.”

ESPN and TNT, for their part, remain bullish on the NBA, and need to be considering the $4.6billion the two networks and ABC are collectively investing in the game over a six-year period.

“ESPN right now has resulted in nine straight quarters of ratings growth. There are only two other cable networks that can say that,” said Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive vice president for programming and production. “We’re on a total high and leading the charge is, by and large, the NBA.”

Gregg Winik, executive vice president of NBA Entertainment, also defended the current TV deal.

“The money we are delivering to our individual teams is substantial,” Winik said. “But more importantly, our overall TV impressions and combined ratings are up, even over the last year [2002] of the NBC deal. So we’re talking about more money and more viewers. And we are delivering very strong lead-ins for our network affiliates. I have every reason to believe they are very happy.”

So if the NBA is experiencing such choppiness with its TV exposure and on-court product, how does one explain the frantic race to the retail shops to buy jerseys, hats and just about anything else with an NBA team logo on it? James, his fellow rookie phenom Carmelo Anthony and the successful introduction this season of new uniforms by several teams are significant reasons. But a lot of it also owes to factors not entirely related to basketball.

“A lot of what we do is a combination of fashion and sport,” said Peter Capolino, president of Mitchell & Ness, the Philadelphia company behind the popular throwback jerseys now dominating sports merchandising. “Probably half of my clientele is buying because they like the look, the image of a particular jersey, as opposed to their being big fans of that player.”

Conversely, deep interest internationally in foreign players such as Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki is pushing the NBA’s international exposure to unprecedented heights. NBA games can now be seen in 212 countries, and frequently in native languages. Traffic on amounted to 2.3billion page views during the regular season, 43 percent above last season.

“That area of growth has been absolutely phenomenal,” Bonham said. “Long term, that puts the NBA in a very enviable position, better than anybody aside from the NFL, and why I would grade out the league overall at maybe a B or a B-plus.”

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