Mark Lazarus was an executive at Turner Broadcasting in the 1990s when the company was the NBA’s sole national cable-TV partner. As such, he had a front-row seat for the hand wringing that occurred when Michael Jordan abruptly left pro basketball in 1993.
“There was a ratings hit,” says Lazarus, who became president of Turner Sports in 1998 and now serves as chairman, NBCUniversal broadcast, entertainment and lifestyle group, sports and news. Jordan was the undisputed face of the league and its top attraction. “Who was going to take that mantle? Who was going to be the next guy up?”
Jordan would return to the game in 1994, then retire again, then un-retire again, then retire again. All the while the succession question loomed. Kobe Bryant, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 — when he was 17 years old and the Chicago Bulls began their fifth of six championship runs with Jordan — wasn’t an obvious heir apparent at first.
“It was not completely predictable when Kobe got drafted in the middle of the first round out of high school,” said Lazarus. “It was so odd that a guy would come straight out of high school at that time. But when he came into the league and found early success,” Lazarus added, two things became clear. “One, that he was an incredible talent. Two, that he was on a great team in a great market that was really good for the NBA and good for television audiences. He became one of the main shining stars for the next 15 to 18 years.”
Bryant died Sunday at the age of 41 in a helicopter accident that killed eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. One of the greatest players in NBA history, his legacy was complicated by a sexual-assault allegation at the height of his career, when he was 24. But Bryant remained a major media figure who helped the NBA grow in the critical post-Jordan era.
With Bryant and fellow star Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers won three straight NBA championships from 2000 to 2002. After O’Neal departed, the Bryant-led Lakers would go on to win two more rings in 2009 and 2010.
During that period, no player was more important to the NBA or its television partners.
“He was every bit the equal to Michael [Jordan] and LeBron [James],” Lazarus said. “In his era, that period of time from, say, post-Jordan til ’10, he was the main guy who got marketed.”
When Lazarus was at Turner, the company would, every season, broadcast the maximum number of Lakers games possible.
“You could put them on against other marquee teams and have blockbuster ratings, or you could put them on against less attractive teams and they still drew a big national audience,” Lazarus said. “They were a major draw — the whole Lakers aura, but the Shaq-Kobe piece was especially exciting.”
At the time, the league needed a major draw. The NBA had grown astronomically in the Jordan era. (When real-estate investor Jerry Reinsdorf bought 56% of the Bulls in 1985, a year after Jordan joined the team, he paid $9.2 million. At the time of Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, the franchise was valued at more than $200 million.) Driven by ever-increasing television rights fees, the league has thrived in the decades since. But continued upward momentum was not a given.
“Even post-Jordan, people were still skeptical that the NBA was ever going to be a product that would rival the popularity of the NFL, but that certainly has happened,” said Windy Dees, a sports-administration professor at the University of Miami. In the 2017-18 season, the NBA topped $1 billion in corporate-sponsorship revenue for the first time — and in 2016 it became the first league to pass one billion social media followers. The league’s current national television contract with Turner and ESPN pays it a reported $2.66 billion a year.
“I don’t think people knew for sure that that kind of growth was going to happen,” Dees said. The only person, she adds, who likely did know was David Stern, who was commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014 and died earlier this month. “It’s sad to think that he and Kobe were lost so close together, because the two of them combined were instrumental in the league’s growth revenue-wise and popularity-wise.”
Bryant was by any measure a star attraction. During the 2013-14 season, which he missed almost all of with a ruptured Achilles tendon, ratings plummeted not just for the Lakers, but also for their crosstown rivals the Clippers, indicating a diminished interest in basketball throughout the Los Angeles market.
But Bryant’s marketing prowess was not on par with that of Jordan or James — and many non-fans found him problematic. In 2003, Bryant was charged with felony assault after a 19-year-old woman accused him of raping her at a Colorado hotel where she worked. The charges were dropped in 2004, and a year later Bryant agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to settle the civil suit that followed.
The case did nothing to diminish Bryant’s ratings pull. But it affected his standing as a media figure.
“There’s no way that a player can have that serious of an incident in their career and still be able to attract sponsors, partners, business opportunities,” at a consistent level, said Dees. “People certainly shied away from him for about a decade before we really started to see the business side of Kobe’s endeavors pick back up. I think there was definitely a cooling off period with Kobe in terms of what he was able to do off the court, and rightfully so.”
Bryant had, however, in the latter years of his career and the early stages of his retirement, begun to successfully transition into a media heavyweight. The 2017 animated short film he produced, “Dear Basketball,” won an Academy Award. His production company, Granity Studios, was in the process of ramping up multiple projects. A series he created for ESPN Plus, “Detail,” premiered last year on the streaming service.
The status of that series and other projects from Granity is, for now, unclear. But that Bryant was critical to his sport’s increased importance in the television landscape and larger media universe is a certainty.
Fewer than four years removed from his last NBA game, Bryant remained an impactful figure across Los Angeles and beyond. Just hours after news of his death broke, hundreds gathered outside Staples Center, home of the Lakers, to mourn him. An outpouring a grief emerged online, with everyone from Disney CEO Bob Iger to actress and producer Mindy Kaling to former President Barack Obama expressing shock and sadness.
On Monday, in an almost unprecedented move, the NBA announced that the Lakers’ upcoming game against the Clippers would be postponed as the franchise processes the death of Bryant and his daughter. In its place Tuesday a memorial service will be held at Staples — and broadcast live on TNT.