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NBA teams, TV look to cash in on momentum

The NBA Finals delivered the highest television ratings since 2004, capping one of the strongest NBA seasons in recent history while leaving David Stern & Co. to bank on the momentum to drive offseason sales.

The six-game Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers generated a 9.3 average rating on ABC, up 50 percent from the 6.2 average generated last year by the San Antonio Spurs’ four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Total viewership during this year’s Finals averaged 14.9 million households (see chart), the highest since the 2004 Finals, and the average rating satisfied ESPN/ABC’s guarantee to advertisers of a 9.5 Finals rating.

The NBA thinks the market for Celtics championship
items will extend well beyond Boston.

“We basically delivered and so we did not have make-good liability as an issue,” said Ed Erhardt, president of sales for ESPN/ABC Sports. “The Finals reaffirms the strength in the property and it is clear that advertisers are recognizing it, because we are seeing increased up-front sales in the NBA.”

Erhardt would not disclose specific new ad buys for next season, but expects to see some new advertisers.

“You sell off last year and the networks will be aggressive, but the reality is that once you catch lightning in a bottle, you can’t assume replication of it for next season,” said Larry Novenstern, executive vice president and director of electronic media for Optimedia. “[The networks] will push it as much as they can.”

Meanwhile, the league’s 28 other teams were looking to capitalize on the increase in postseason interest during their season-ticket renewal period.

To date, sales of NBA season tickets — a key measure of the league’s overall health — are running even with last year, which brought an 85 percent renewal rate. But continuing the sales pace given the struggling economy stands as a major challenge for the league.

Rebound: NBA Finals Ratings On ABC
YEAR GAMES AVERAGE RATING AVERAGE VIEWERS WINNER-LOSER
2008 6 9.3 14,946,000 Boston-Los Angeles Lakers
2007 4 6.2 9,289,000 San Antonio-Cleveland
2006 6 8.5 12,972,000 Miami-Dallas
2005 7 8.2 12,544,000 San Antonio-Detroit
2004 5 11.5 17,942,000 Detroit-Los Angeles Lakers

“The game has been strong and ratings are up and that puts us in a position of strength, which is good timing for us,” said Scott O’Neil, senior vice president of team marketing and business operations for the NBA. “From the NBA perspective, there hasn’t been any dramatic changes given the economic environment.”

On the sponsorship side, the vibrant NBA regular season and strong postseason interest so far has helped insulate the league from the economic downturn — and from the former referee Tim Donaghy gambling scandal that troubled the NBA this season.

“There is some concern about the economy, but we have not really seen any negative impact,” said Mark Tatum, senior vice president of marketing partnerships. “We have not seen any decline in sales and as a matter-of-fact, we added Kia, Right Guard and Cisco this year.”

The strength of this year’s Finals also added to the league’s strong seasonlong merchandise sales. Officials at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden said per cap record sales were just over $13 during the Finals.

“Sales at the NBA Store will be up 15 percent from last season and sales from our online store will be up more than 30 percent when it’s all over,” said Sal LaRocca, executive vice president of global merchandising for the NBA.

“It’s too early to say for sure, but early on, [this year’s Finals] has a lot of the size of the Chicago Bulls’ first ‘three-peat,’ which was our largest ever. The market is well beyond just Boston. I think this championship will be up there with our all-time best for licensed sales.”

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