NBA in disarray

Come back, Mr. Jordan: The NBA Finals are in danger of going down as the lowest-rated playoffs since 1981, while couch potatoes turn off college games, too. What's wrong with hoops?

By Eric Boehlert

Published June 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

In the closing seconds of the crucial fourth game of the NBA Finals last week, NBC, the Indiana Pacers and the National Basketball Association all got the shot they wanted.

Pacers sharpshooter Reggie Miller had the ball. A thrilling overtime win against the heavily favored Los Angles Lakers was just a basket away. A Pacer victory would tie the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, ignite new fan interest and all but guarantee a decisive -- and highly rated -- final seventh game.

Unfortunately, Miller's shot was off the mark. And it turns out he wasn't the only one who missed. As the Lakers grabbed a commanding 3-to-1 lead, the NBA and NBC no doubt felt the Pacers' pain. Though Indiana rebounded in Game 5 (trouncing the Lakers in a laugher), the lopsided win made for bad TV -- and even more ratings mediocrity for the NBA. This year, regular season ratings dropped by more than 20 percent (off nearly 30 percent from '98). Things haven't been this bad in a long time.

Monday night the Lakers returned home to claim the title. And thanks to a nail-biting finish, the 2000 NBA Finals might just have avoided going down as the lowest-rated Finals since since 1981 -- a time when the Finals weren't even televised in prime time. (Final ratings will be known late Tuesday.)

The problem isn't limited to the pros.

Over at CBS, the NCAA men's basketball Tournament isn't doing much better. When unsung Michigan State handily defeated a little-known squad from the University of Florida in April, the championship game racked up the lowest ratings in two decades.

In fact, if past rating patterns hold, the NCAA championship game may fail to crack the year's 25 most-watched sporting events. "We always knew that could happen if the game wasn't competitive and there were no marquee teams involved," allows Michael Aresco, vice president of programming for CBS Sports.

Like the NBA on NBC, the NCAA on CBS is coming off back-to-back ratings disappointments. And like the NBA and NBC, CBS just re-upped its basketball contract by more than doubling its sports rights fees.

While industry observers offer many reasons why viewership is down -- a less-than-appealing array of overpaid professional stars; teenage college players jumping to the NBA too soon -- a television ratings failure always boils down to the same thing: no story.

After a decade's worth of ratings mojo, the NBA and the NCAA appear to have lost the compelling stories that attract casual viewers who make sports programming a hit. "The trick is to draw them in from the edges, to draw beyond the real hardcore sports fans," says professor Stephen A. Greyser, who specializes in sports management at the Harvard Business School.

"There's so much audience fragmentation, so many channels of programming, so much sports on the air that it's harder and harder to find really core fans," adds John Mansell, senior analyst for Paul Kagen Associates. "You need that extra oomph to attract their interest." Seems b-ball oomph has been in short supply lately.

Who's got sports oomph today? Tiger Woods. The charismatic golfer has single-handedly boosted the PGA's TV ratings by winning over casual sports fans -- often at the NBA's expense.

The networks and their basketball partners have one saving grace: Advertisers desperately need the game to reach elusive 18-to-49-year-old male viewers; advertisers continue to pay top dollar even as the audience shrinks. But for how long?

In his annual end-of-the-season press conference last week, NBA commissioner David Stern downplayed the drop in viewership. "Ratings are eroding across all television programming," he said, citing continued audience fragmentation. "The issue is: How much of a rating can we hold, not how you increase them."

One major-market NBA TV producer agrees: "The goal now is to maintain the level they have."

Twelve months ago it would have been hard to believe that people inside NBC or the NBA would ever use the '99 Finals as a benchmark for success. Last spring, when the San Antonio Spurs dismissed the New York Knicks in five largely forgettable games (for non-Spurs fans, that is) and accumulated dreadful ratings (the lowest since '81), the spin was fast and furious: Viewers stayed away because the season had been strike-shortened; Michael Jordan had just retired; the Spurs and the Knicks lacked marketable superstars.

But this season saw no labor lockout. And it featured two of the NBA's brightest stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and their glamorous L.A. franchise. Nevertheless, this year's Finals are struggling to outperform last year's debacle. Fact: Not one of the 2000 Finals games has outdrawn CBS's red-hot "Survivor" series in total viewers.

"I thought Shaq would have brought a little bit of that Michael Jordan factor," says Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing for Madison Avenue's OMD. "But he hasn't."

That's bad news for NBC. The network watched NBA games tank all year despite having recently paid $1.75 billion for NBA rights through the 2001-02 season. (This figure amounts to $350 million per season; the network's previous pact with the NBA totaled $750 million -- or $187 million per season.)

In an attempt to pay off that deal, NBC increased its allotment of regular season prime-time games from seven to 17, with the bulk airing on Saturday and Sunday nights. Ratings-wise, they were a disaster, with the low coming on March 12, aka Black Sunday.

That evening, two hours of prime-time NBA hoops drew just 4.6 million viewers. These are great numbers for a niche cable channel. For a broadcast network, they're an outright disaster. It gets worse: Thanks to that dismal lead-in, "Donnie Brasco," the NBC movie that followed the NBA that night, barely drew 6 million viewers.

When the Nielsen Media Research numbers came back the following day, the network's worst fears were confirmed: It was the lowest-rated night of prime-time viewing for any network. Ever.

In a business that covets the halo effect that can come with hit shows, i.e. the ability to attract viewers to adjacently scheduled programming, the NBA has often become the opposite: a ratings anchor. And with marquee sporting events now increasingly used by networks to launch new shows and hype late-night lineups, the downturn comes at a particularly bad time.

On the eve of the May sweeps, NBC used NBA games to relentlessly promote the network's miniseries "The '70s." It was a ratings Watergate. Over at CBS, the older-skewing network hoped NCAA Tournament promos would drum up interest among young male viewers for its mob serial "Falcone." Like "The '70s," it wound up as just another expensive made-for-TV flop.

Just how far has the NBA Finals fallen from the Jordan glory days of just a few years back? By more than 40 percent.

During Jordan's final run in '98, when the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Utah Jazz, the Finals accumulated a historically high 18.7 rating. Game 6, in which the Bulls clinched, drew an astounding 22.3 rating. Two years later, the Lakers-Pacers Finals were limping home with a 10.9 rating. And Friday night, when the Lakers had a chance to clinch the championship, the ratings were half that of Jordan's triumphant night.

Of course, the NBA and NBC had to see this coming. "The NBA's rise in the late '90s certainly went against the flow of long-term decline in network sports," notes Mansell. Just look at ABC's NFL franchise, "Monday Night Football." Its ratings declined 20 percent between 1995 and 1999.

How important was Jordan?

At a time when ratings for other network sports telecasts were eroding, Jordan essentially kept the NBA's numbers artificially inflated. Along with being one of the greatest players of all time, No. 23 also doubled as the league's fan ambassador -- a role that has yet to be filled. His exit all but guaranteed a crash.

It's tough to replace an icon. But is there something even more fundamentally wrong with the NBA that's keeping viewers away?

While there have certainly been thrilling moments during this season's playoffs (the Lakers' inspired fourth-quarter, seventh-game comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in the semifinals comes to mind), there have been just as many memorable lows. Take, for instance, the evening the Blazers forced a notoriously inaccurate O'Neal to shoot 25 free throws in just one quarter. "It was like watching C-Span," quipped one ESPN talking head. Or the thuggish defensive struggle between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, which saw one mid-third-quarter score knotted at 50-50. In the end, 93 shots clanked off the rim.

"If you're a basketball purist, you say that's great defense," says Kim Belton, who used to produce NBA telecasts for TNT and now does college games for ESPN. "But how do you attract fans who aren't basketball purists?"

Since Jordan is unlikely to emerge from retirement, as he once did, a second time, the league needs one or two superstars who are proven winners, who can transcend the game and connect with the masses. Soon. "To be a franchise player you need to be marketable to a broad cross section of fans," says sports consultant and former Madison Square Garden president Bob Gutkowski. "The truth is many people find today's players unattractive and respond negatively to all the money." (The average annual NBA player salary now hovers around $4 million.)

From a marketing perspective, Gutkowski says, the NBA has its work cut out for it. A new generation of renegade stars such as Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson or Latrell Sprewell all seem to relish their bad-boy images. "Cornrows are a difficult thing to market. People don't like to admit it, and I don't care if the player is black or white, but it's true," says Gutkowski. "The tattoos, the fights, choking the coach. All these things as a fan you don't like to see, and feel, and smell, and they have an impact."

Meanwhile, All-Stars who may seem more appealing to the mainstream, such as Grant Hill, Vince Carter or Kevin Garnett, face another problem: They haven't won anything yet. In fact, all three made quick exits from the playoffs this spring. "Carter is an unbelievable talent," says hoops producer Belton. "But you have to put up or shut up."

College ball faces a similar perception gap. With so many players dropping out of school to turn pro, the game "is becoming a freshman and sophomore sport and it's starting to have an impact," says Gutkowski. "The quality of play is starting to go down."

While defending the level of college play, Aresco at CBS Sports concedes the trend has affected viewership. "In the past you had a big game featuring three-year all-Americans against each other. The causal fan says, 'I've got to watch that game.' I think it's hurting the NBA as well, because these kids [who leave early] are not known to the country when they go pro. Patrick Ewing was a known all-star when he arrived in the NBA. College basketball and the NBA will both be healthier down the road if they can figure out ways to deal with this issue."

From a business standpoint though, Aresco stresses "the Tournament is a good product and has great demographics." In other words, advertisers still love the game. For now, basketball's lifeline remains intact: The NCAA Tournament and the NBA Finals attract among the most upscale viewers of any sporting events on network television, according to a recent survey by TN Media. Another plus: The events also skew comparatively young among male viewers. "Where else are advertisers going to go to get that audience?" asks one NBA producer.

"The fact is the networks are getting more and more for advertising," according to Mansell at Paul Kagen Associates, who reports that advertisers paid approximately $380,000 for a 30-second spot during the 1999 NBA Finals, while beer and car companies paid roughly $250,000 for a time buy during the NCCA Tournament. Last year's NBA Finals brought in $137 million in ad revenue for NBC, while CBS pocketed $266 million during the two-week Tournament. And despite the ratings dip, analysts says those prices only continue to rise.

Why? "Because relative to other available programming, sports on TV represents the best way to reach men 25-54," says Greyser at the Harvard Business School.

That reality may explain why neither NBC nor CBS seems to be sweating the details of recent sports licensing deals. "It's not going to be like college basketball and NBA are going to go out of business," says Belton. "If the NBA's decline continues for two or three years you can say, Well, they're in trouble. But they just lost Jordan."

As for the college games, Belton -- who understands the TV business as well as the game of basketball -- knows that the NCAA simply needs a compelling narrative to win back viewers next year. Pointing to controversial Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight (who was recently disciplined for his long history of angry outbursts), Belton sees a potential blockbuster. "If Indiana and Bobby Knight are in the championship, you don't think ratings would be off the charts? Because that'd be a great story."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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