The buzz surrounding pro basketball has grown so loud since the playoffs began in mid-March that David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, can’t stop grinning.
What a difference a year makes.
Stern was barely cracking a smile in 2004 and 2005, struggling to cope with at least three PR nightmares that had a pernicious effect on the Nielsen ratings:
- The rape charges in Denver against Kobe Bryant (which ended up being settled out of court).
- The record 73-game suspension of another star player Ron Artest, who charged into the stands in Detroit in November and punched out a couple of fans (four other players got long suspensions following the worst free-for-all in NBAhistory).
- The insensitivity of players like Lattrell Sprewell, who demanded a $14 million a year contract from Minnesota, saying he couldn’t feed his three kids on anything less. Fast-forward to just six weeks ago, and Bryant and Artest led their teams to the first round of the playoffs; Sprewell is yesterday’s news having sat out the season.
To Stern the beauty of these playoffs is that “it’s all about the game,” not about virulent storylines that require damage control by the League.
And couch potatoes have responded.
In the post-season (mid-April through June 3), ESPN and its ABC sibling have each shot up by double digits in total viewers and in the three key male demos (18-34, 18-49 and 25-54). TNT is also up, by an average of 4% in total viewers and males 18-32 and 18-49, and by 9% in males 25-54.
“These numbers will result in significantly improved revenues next year,” says Neal Pilson, sports-media consultant and former president of CBS Sports.
ABC and ESPN together pony up $400 million a year to the NBA; TNT shells out $366 million per. Both contracts run for two more years, through the 2007-08 season.
Pilson says that ESPN and TNT have every right to pat themselves on the back because they’ll benefit not only from bulked-up ad revenues, but also from the cash license fees they collect from cable operators and satcasters.
ESPN will pocket a total of $3.3 billion in 2006, and TNT will harvest $990 million, also in 2006, according to Kagan Research.
It’s too early for ESPN and TNT to negotiate a new contract with the NBA, says Pilson. But he adds that if the ratings continue to be strong next season, other networks could enter the bidding, which would drive up the rights fees.
David Levy, president of Turner Sports, is pinching himself because “luck has certainly played a role in our success with the NBA,” he says, pointing out the post-season bonanza of nine overtime games and more than a dozen games decided by a winning basket in the last seconds.
But luck is only one factor.
David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, says, “The NBA has gone back to the future.”
In Carter’s view, a younger group of high-octane stars like Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash have begun erasing the hold that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have maintained on the loyalties of TV viewers since the mid-1980s.
“The Jordan era may finally be coming to a close,” says Mike Trager, sport-media consultant and former head of Clear Channel TV.
Len DeLuca, senior VP of programming for ESPN and ABC Sports, says the combination of new stars and lively storylines has spiked the ratings. One storyline ABC has pushed is that Dallas and Miami are each making their first appearance in the NBC Finals: That hasn’t happened in 35 years.
Another storyline, DeLuca says, is “the return of Shaquille O’Neal as an icon of the League,” teaming with Wade in Miami the way he did with Bryant earlier to chalk up three World Championships with the L.A. Lakers.
The Dallas-Miami Finals got under way June 8.
Stern, pumped that the league is on a roll but fully aware that the young male viewers targeted by the NBA have the attention span of hummingbirds, delivers a final caution: “If Dallas wins a one-sided series in four games, we’ll all be bums again.”