Unless you’re a hardcore hoops fan, the 12 players officially unveiled Monday as the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team competing next month in Rio may come as some disappointment. But no one should feel more let down than NBCUniversal, which has the TV rights to the Summer Games.
That might seem a little counter-intuitive considering the league that provides that team its players, the National Basketball Association, couldn’t be flying any higher right now. We’re barely a week removed from a championship that drove record ratings to Disney-owned ABC, which benefited from an epic seven-game match-up between the teams boasting the league’s biggest stars, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Just one problem: Neither Curry nor James is on this year’s Olympics team, with both men citing their need for some well-deserved R&R after a bruising series that took them past the point of exhaustion. Continuing in Rio this summer would have endangered their teams’ hopes for returning to the NBA Finals next year.
But the problem gets worse when you realize Curry and James are far from the only elite players sitting out the Summer Games. Russell Westbrook, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder star who nearly led an upset of the Warriors that could have put his team in the Finals, won’t be in Rio, as will two other players who also raised their profiles in the post-season, Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard and San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard. They, and still others who belong in anyone’s Top 10 countdown of the NBA’s greatest current players, are no-shows.
Collectively, this is bad news for NBCUniversal, which could see reduced interest in a sport that is typically one of the marquee attractions for the Summer Games. Barring some massive Zika-driven calamity, Rio is going to be a big success for NBCUni parent Comcast, but the absence of too many superstars will take a bit of the shine off of what will undoubtedly be a sport that will figure heavily in primetime coverage, particularly on broadcast network NBC.
Think of the U.S. team in Rio as a mostly A-/B+ group, with the exception of one solid A-level player in Westbrook teammate Kevin Durant, the unmistakable best of the bunch who will have the added spotlight this summer of being a free agent.
But even Durant is not in the same realm of stratosphere occupied by Curry, who may be the most popular player in NBA history after a miraculous season that ended bitterly thanks to James, who took his already legendary status to something of a basketball deity with a performance that handed his team the championship.
No disrespect intended to the still very formidable group of players who should cruise pretty effortlessly to a gold medal. But that’s also part of the problem: Once it became clear to Team USA that many top ballers weren’t coming to Rio, it might have been worth considering putting together a less stellar group to level what’s going to be a lopsided playing field with, for example, an all-rookie team, the cream of the recently concluded NBA draft or maybe even a strictly college-level roster. Then American viewers could take a rooting interest in an underdog team that might actually provide a more ratings-friendly narrative.
Yes, if Curry and James were there, the game would be even more lopsided. But at least when there’s a top-shelf squad in place, the Olympics function less as as source of actual competition and more as a showcase for bringing together the most freakishly incredible group of players to share one bench anywhere on the planet, not unlike the NBA’s own All-Star Game, which no one watches because they actually care about the score.
Maybe the Olympics’ best hope of buzz comes from Curry’s fellow Splash Brother, Warriors guard Klay Thompson, and James’ right-hand man, Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. They may not have the star power their teammates boast but are capable of the kind of bravura athleticism that will leave viewers agog.
Still, if NBC Uni was hoping for the kind of “Dream Team” that drove huge hype in 1992, the 2016 squad ain’t it.