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NBA rebound is hardly a slam dunk

League coming off record ratings lows in '07

As the National Basketball Assn. wraps up the first week of a new season, Charles Barkley, the boisterously opinionated former NBA star and TNT studio commentator, says the fans he’s talked to in the past few weeks are more interested in hot teams and star players than in the scandals that have touched the league in the off-season, like a gambling ref and Isiah Thomas’ misogyny.

And that’s a good thing for a league coming off record ratings lows for its finals last June.

“People are asking me how well the Boston Celtics are going to do with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen,” Barkley said last week, speaking informally with a group of reporters. “They want to know what’s going to happen with Kobe Bryant,” the disgruntled star who says he’s fed up with his Los Angeles Lakers and wants to be traded.

Joining Barkley in the same briefing, David Levy, president of Turner Sports, said referee Tim Donaghy’s guilty plea for conspiring with gamblers who bet on games is an isolated incident, and won’t affect the ratings on TNT and ESPN, the networks that carry most NBA contests.

Barkley and Levy’s remarks go down well with David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, who gave a flat “No” during a recent telephone conference call when a reporter asked him whether 2007-08 “is the most pivotal season in the history of the league.”

Stern points out to naysayers that the league has weathered past storms including players who took drugs and the retirements of superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the last-named due to HIV.

And not all scandals are created equal. The jury’s conviction of the Knicks’ Thomas for improper advances toward a Madison Square Garden executive is not comparable in gale force to the ref scandal, says Mike Trager, sports consultant and former head of Clear Channel TV. “The harassment suit is not an NBA problem, not a basketball problem,” he adds, “but a symptom of the poor management of the Knicks.”

But since the Knicks haven’t had a winning record since the 2002-03 season, another losing year by the team wouldn’t seem to affect the national ratings.

Despite the lowest Nielsen numbers ever in 2006-07 for an NBA Finals (when San Antonio beat overmatched Cleveland in a four-game sweep), Stern boasts that the NBA has contracts worth more than $8 billion in license fees with ESPN/ABC and TNT for the next nine years, and that the number of league sponsors has shot up to record levels.

What’s not to like, says Kevin O’Malley, a sports-media consultant and former top exec at Turner Sports. “The league’s TV partners are happy ,” he says, “and the sponsors are happy.”

Corporate sponsors continue to be gung-ho for the NBA because they have confidence in the way Stern has run the league, says Chris Bevilacqua, a partner in the sports-marketing company SCP Worldwide.

Still, there are signs the league’s transgressions aren’t forgotten. Rick Gentile, director of the Seton Hall Sports Poll, says that roughly half of the under-45 adult respondents to a nationwide survey last month said they thought wagering among NBA refs is widespread.

Although all the evidence so far points to Donaghy as the lone wrongdoer among referees, Gentile says the Seton Hall data are “disturbing” and show that “the NBA has a lot of damage control ahead to rebuild confidence in its game among its younger fan base. This should be a wake-up call to the league.” But Gentile adds that he doubts the scandal will affect the ratings. “I don’t think the ref scandal will cause a person to say: ‘I’m angry, and I’m not watching the game tonight on TV.’ ”

From what David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at USC, calls “the macro perspective,” the ref scandal is scarcely a blip. “The league is fundamentally sound,” he says. “I can’t think of a single reason not to be bullish about the game.”

One specific reason to be bullish, says Robert Tuchman, founder and president of TSE Sports & Entertainment, is the emergence of the Celtics as a contender for the first time in many years. For their NBA-preview issues last week, the covers of three leading sports magazines (Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News and ESPN: The Magazine) all featured Paul Pierce posing with new Celtic teammates Garnett and Allen.

Bob Gutkowski, CEO of Marketing Group Intl. and former president of Madison Square Garden, says, “The Celtics are one of the great franchises in all of sports. If the team becomes a winner, it’ll drive the ratings nationally.”

But a good year by the Celtics could be negated by the decline of another great franchise, the Lakers, if the team trades Bryant and goes through a down year. The “Showtime” Lakers get consistently higher national ratings than any other NBA team, and they’ve suffered only one losing season since 1994-95.

Still, no matter what, the general trend of the NBA’s televisionratings will be down, says Ed Desser, head of his own sports consultancy and a former top official of the NBA.

“People are getting the games on websites, TiVos, video-on-demand and cell phones,” Desser says, calling these additional ways of watching games “digital assets.” The NBA is already plunging in, he concludes, prepared “to create a whole new business.”

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