SBJ/June 20 - 26, 2005/Opinion

Checking the vital signs of the NBA Finals

You always like to end strong. The Super Bowl, the World Series and the Final Four are season capstones that maximize attention on the sport, capture once-a-year viewers with compelling storylines and serve as significant business tools to drive revenue. You want significant attention focused exclusively on the competition and the competitors.

It’s not working out this year for the NBA and its playoffs.

Fan-favorite teams and representatives of the big media markets were absent or early departures from the playoffs, and TV viewership reflected it. Headed into the Finals, postseason ratings were down 26 percent on ABC, down 12 percent on TNT and down 3.7 percent on ESPN. The Detroit-San Antonio final round, as of last week, was trending double digits below last year, which included the soap opera-filled storylines of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Speaking of Detroit and San Antonio, coaches and players alike criticized what they saw as pregame distractions before Game 1 of the Finals: overlong introductions, elaborate musical acts, production cables in the way. In-arena entertainment is a big part of the NBA, but it shouldn’t overshadow the game, or feel forced or contrived.

As for overshadowing the series, ABC and the NBA PR machine oddly allowed the Lakers to seem a part of this year’s Finals. Even the most casual observer can read between the lines when ratings reports compare numbers to prior non-Lakers Finals. The Lakers further dominated the spotlight with the announcement that Phil Jackson would return as coach.

The PR approach was odd. The Lakers’ hiring could have been made after the Finals. Instead, ABC touted an interview with Jackson before the Finals, as if that were more important than the game. Such team news is something the league may want to extend greater control over in the future so that the emphasis is on the Finals — and the worthy competitors involved — and not some other distraction.

And then there’s the prospect of a lockout. NBA Commissioner David Stern, NBPA chief Billy Hunter and many others are openly predicting a labor impasse when the current collective-bargaining agreement expires June 30. The particulars here are baffling, because a compromise seems reachable. The sides are battling over the length of guaranteed contracts (seven years or six), minimum player ages (yes or no) and drug testing. Real issues, yes; worth a lockout, no.

The NBA, like the NHL, is in no position to anger fans again with an arrogant display of negotiations. A lockout would surely lead to greater fan erosion and disinterest in a league that is not top of mind among consumers these days.

The NBA has seen so many positives this season — record attendance, exciting young players, new interest in Miami, Stern’s forceful leadership after the fan-player brawl in Detroit. After that, it’s all the more puzzling that the league seems poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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