Given there’s no more expensive kind of TV content than professional sports, it’s easy to mistakenly assume the prices paid for the multi-year rights to these games is predicated in part on the growth potential for its audience size. But while attractions like the NFL season or the MLB playoffs still draw big crowds to TV screens, sports isn’t that much different than any other kind of programming, all of which are fighting viewer declines amid an explosion of digital alternatives.
But that doesn’t mean a league capable of offering fans compelling viewing experiences can’t defy gravity and keep ratings rising. When its new season tips off Oct. 17, the NBA has ample reason for some optimism regarding seeing its audience numbers go up instead of down. That’s largely due to the mix of fascinating storylines spread broadly across many teams.
And yet the average basketball fan might beg to differ thusly: If the Golden State Warriors continue to be as dominant as they appear to be, doesn’t that drain any sense of suspense from the 2017-18 season?
That would be bad news for Disney and Time Warner-owned Turner, which are heading together into the second year of a 9-year $24 billion rights deal, not to mention the countless regional sports networks around the country ready to unspool the 82-game regular season.
Few experts would disagree that the Warriors are heavy favorites to repeat as champions, which would also mark their third title in four years. The addition of Kevin Durant in 2016 to an already potent lineup led by Stephen Curry makes the Warriors all but unbeatable, so who wants to see a team romp its way to victory once again?
But the Warriors’ joyous style of high-octane offense, keyed by three-point attempts so ridiculous that they would have gotten players benched just a few years ago, makes them fan favorites even when they are routing teams. This isn’t just a squad destined to go down in NBA history as one of its all-time greatest teams; they bring an entertainment value that may even exceed the bar set previously by the 1990s-era steamroller that was Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. That good.
But even if somehow Warriors suddenly became deadly boring (no chance), there’s some much else outside Northern California to drive interest in the coming season. The summer featured such an incredible flurry of roster activity that bolstered many of the teams considered to have at least a remote possibility of challenging the Warriors. The also-rans are looking stronger than they did last season.
And no matter how many people say these new and improved squads still don’t have the firepower to outgun the Warriors, all it takes is one post-season injury to one of their elite players, and suddenly what was once a lopsided affair can tighten up quickly.
After an impressive season that came up short in Houston, James Harden will have help in Chris Paul, putting two of the best guards in the league on the same Rockets team. While for much of the summer that made them the team most likely to challenge the Warriors, the Rockets got upstaged in September by the signing of Knicks malcontent Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which already managed to stun the league earlier in the summer by bringing an even bigger all star, Paul George, to lace up alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
What once seemed like a cakewalk may not be. It’s so energizing for an already stacked Western Conference to get that much more amped and potentially bring down the Warriors.
It’s indisputable that the Eastern Conference is nowhere near as competitive as the Western, and yet it’s entirely possible we’re going to see the quantum leap for a rivalry that was just starting to heat up. Cleveland Cavaliers will get a stiff challenge once again from the Boston Celtics, with the awesome plot twist that the the teams pulled off the unlikeliest deal of the summer by trading some of the best players in the NBA between Isiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. With LeBron James in the middle of it all, we could see quite a war in a division that really has no other threat to speak of.
Which isn’t to say that what makes a league compelling can only be the competition between aspiring champions. To the contrary, what’s so interesting in the NBA is the growth stories that are emerging among teams that may not even make the playoffs this year but still seem headed for greatness. The Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks are teeming with young talent at its finest.
Then there’s individual rookies that couldn’t be more magnetic despite the fact they haven’t touched the pro floor yet. Lonzo Ball has such insanely high expectations to meet for The Los Angeles Lakers that it’s going to be hard not to watch him like a hawk. Kristaps Porzingis is another young talent who is several years into the league but is coming into his own on a New York Knicks team that is just an absorbing mess like nothing else in sports.
Aggregating talent in and of itself doesn’t guarantee success. Two of the best big men in the NBA, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, happen to be on the New Orleans Pelicans together but no one is counting them as a contender. Even that disappointment supplies drama: Davis is a free agent next season. Unless the Pelicans make an unlikely surge, figuring out what team he ends up on will be the next obsession of the coming offseason.
And as the NBA proved this past summer, the fun is just starting when the season is ending. The league’s TV partners can count on a crowdpleaser that should be reflected in improved TV ratings.