Image, ratings down for NBA

TNT, ESPN see dip in ratings

NEW YORK — The National Basketball Assn. is having a harder time scaring up TV viewers this year.

TNT is down 12% in total viewers for the 2004 season to date, compared with the same period in 2003. The network is off by 15% in men 18-49, the demographic targeted by the net. And it has fallen by 11% in men 18-34.

Similarly, ESPN has slipped 7% among total viewers season to date. Decline is an even more dramatic 14% with men 18-49. The falloff is 6% in men 18-34.

ESPN’s researchers excluded opening telecasts because they performed unusually poorly against Election Night coverage on the broadcast networks. The drops are even more precipitous when those opening-night telecasts are included, with ESPN down year-to-year by 16% in men 18-49 and by 11% in households.

David Carter, a principal in the L.A.-based Sports Business Group, cites negative publicity generated by the infamous fistfights between players and fans in Detroit last month, and by Kobe Bryant’s headline-making verbal feuds with former teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone.

“The fight that got Ron Artest suspended for the whole season is a symbol of the perception that the league is headed in the wrong direction,” Carter said. “It’s part of the whole in-your-face presentation of players who embrace edginess and arrogance, cover their arms with tattoos and thump their chests after every slam-dunk.

“Maybe it’s not so surprising,” Carter added, “that all of this selfishness and egotism by the players is proving a drag on the Nielsen ratings.”

But ESPN and TNT are not giving in to despair, counting on a boost in the numbers as the playoff races start to heat up in January and February.

ESPN could draw lots of curiosity seekers on Christmas Day when it airs a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, the teams that faced off on Nov. 19 in a contest that culminated in the worst brawl in NBA history.

And later on Christmas Day, ABC’s first NBA telecast of the season features the first game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat since O’Neal joined the Heat because he couldn’t stand being on the same team as Bryant.

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