Watching the numbers

The NBA closed its 62nd season last week as the Celtics clinched their 17th NBA championship, a day after Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open in a 19-hole playoff. Both events jumped off the sports pages into water-cooler conversations. And both continued the trend in 2008 of delivering television ratings.

No one could argue that the NBA didn’t deliver value for its media partners this season. While some analysts claimed naively that numbers for the marquee Celtics-Lakers matchup were lower than expected, it is impossible to poke holes when NBA programming consistently won the night for ABC. For the week ending June 15, ABC took first place among all broadcast networks in the coveted 18-49 demographic, and beat Fox, which had won the demo for 22 straight weeks. That’s part of the value the networks see in sports.

The USGA’s U.S. Open scored strong prime-time weekend ratings for NBC, followed by an impressive number for Monday’s playoff. ESPN set a record for the most-viewed golf telecast ever on cable with its broadcast of the early portion of the playoff.

NBA Commissioner David Stern’s response to the ratings bump has been the “Yeah, it’s nice, but next year could be down” approach, and he’s right. No one should take an eye off the ball of the long-term plan because of slight gains. But in TV, as in sports, there’s up and there’s down, and up is a lot more fun for everyone.

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