Watching the NBA Finals, that poorly played, charisma-free exercise in bricklaying that the San Antonio Spurs ended with an 88-77 win over the New Jersey Nets in Game 6 Sunday, I wondered if the league had reached an epochal moment.
Is the bloom off the NBA once and for all? Were the plunging TV ratings a harbinger of a second-rate future? Or was this the darkness before the dawn, a last awful moment before the post-Michael Jordan era, which includes Jordan's two-year comeback, gives way to a new world, perhaps one lorded over by the incoming savior, LeBron James?
The answer, of course, is: Who knows?
But a couple of marketing experts I talked to said things aren't as bad for the NBA as they might seem. The league is poised to take advantage of the gold mine that is the rest of the world, which is good news for team owners, though, like the game itself during these final two weeks, it doesn't do much for the American fan base.
"My hunch is that the league is going to rebound, pardon the pun, because while they might have some problems today, I think what they've done is set themselves up really favorably down the road, most notably in terms of building an international concern," says David Carter, who runs the Sports Business Group marketing firm in Los Angeles and is the author of "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America's Sports Leaders." "Obviously you see the influx of NBA players from abroad. I think that's going to help [the league's] notoriety on a global basis. Forgetting 'NBA' or 'sports,' all businesses now need to be concerned with the global presence, and they're out in front on that."
Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, agrees. "This influx of international talent and this talk of one or two teams in Europe playing in the NBA before the end of the decade, I think that gives you a pretty solid roadmap of where they think the true growth of the NBA will come from, and that's going to be international," he says. "As you would think about the league in the sense of a product, a product has a life cycle, and the NBA for the most part domestically has reached a point of kind of being on Main Street with its product."
In other words, there's no room to grow in the U.S. The market's saturated. The NBA is through with us here. And judging by the ratings, we're starting to be a little bit over the NBA in return.
"It strikes me that [NBA commissioner] David Stern over the course of the last decade or two has really gone out of his way to package the NBA as entertainment, and it was so great when you had Kobe and Shaq and you had the Chicago Bulls with Jordan and Pippen. I mean, it was entertainment," Carter says. "But what we're seeing now is the sizzle of entertainment, including Jewel singing and the rest of their cross-promotion of entertainment properties, but when you get to the core product, I think people are really voting with their remote controls. They're saying, 'You were selling us on entertainment and you're not delivering it, at least this season.'"
In spades, not.
The 2003 Finals were a display of nearly unwatchable basketball dominated by "magnificent defense," if you believe TV analyst Bill Walton, or execrable shooting and general sloppiness, if you believe his partner, Tom Tolbert, and pretty much everyone else. In the clinching game Sunday, for example, San Antonio went on a decisive 19-0 run in the fourth quarter that featured some nice shooting. But more notably, it featured the Nets playing some of the worst basketball you'll ever see a decent team play. They panicked, took lousy shots, turned the ball over and generally looked like a high school team on the first day of practice. This sort of thing happened regularly to New Jersey in the series.
Also, the Spurs and Nets were each led by a wonderful player, but not a particularly dynamic one. You could make an argument without getting laughed out of the building that the Spurs' Tim Duncan, the league and playoff Most Valuable Player, is the most complete center ever to play the game. But you have to have some hoops savvy to appreciate him. He's so good his spectacular play looks unspectacular, and he's not flamboyant at all. He just plays, he's better than everybody else thank you very much, and we'll get 'em again tomorrow. Jason Kidd, the Nets' star point guard, is a flashier player, but he's also a bit low-key, never showing emotion on the court and never showing anything resembling a personality off of it.
And so TV ratings, already in decline for the past half decade or so, plunged lower than the Cavaliers' winning percentage. They were Clipperlike. Nugget-elicious. They were down nearly 40 percent for the Finals from a year ago, when the Lakers-Nets series had the lowest ratings since the series became a prime-time event in 1982. "Law & Order" reruns cleaned the NBA's clock in the Nielsens.
But just as LeBron James means things are looking up in Cleveland, perhaps he's an answer for the league as well. Here, finally, is a superstar talent, good enough to leap to the NBA without putting in his time in the college game, but already as famous as four-year college stars used to be.
Don't bet on it, the experts say. If Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett, spectacular players who have been around long enough to be well-known, haven't become the next Jordan, then James probably won't either.
"He's not going to be the Pied Piper," Carter says. "He can't be. One guy is not likely to save, or reposition, that league. We've seen one Jordan and that's probably about all we're going to see. Not only was he an anomaly, but the economy during his heyday was pretty strong, and it's a little bit apples to oranges."
Though the poor economy doesn't directly affect ratings, it does affect the league's ability to market itself, Carter says. Unlike a few years ago, the NBA is now primarily a cable TV show, and there's less sponsorship money around to popularize the product. "It's hard to connect the dots directly, but I think there is some relationship."
Fortunately for the NBA owners, none of this matters much if they can make the international market pay.
"Even though commissioner Stern and every commissioner are charged with protecting the best interests of the game, that's code for maintaining and building franchise value," Carter says. Going global gives the 29 team owners a leg up on developing other businesses around the world. "Much like they used their teams as loss leaders for business development in this country, they might also be doing that abroad. So you might put up with a Nets and someone like the Utah Jazz [in the Finals] if it helps build franchise values and affords those owners other opportunities."
This all might end up being a great thing for die-hard domestic fans. While the NBA turns its corporate eyes to the rest of the world, we can enjoy the basketball -- assuming this year's sludgy Finals series is a historical burp -- without being force-fed Jewel or Lisa Marie Presley lip-synching at halftime.
On the other hand, is this a scene from the NBA's near future? Two guys in a bar in Shanghai are arguing about last night's game. One says a lousy foul call cost Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets the win, the other blames the loss on Yao's poor shooting, not the refs. The bartender listens for a while, polishing glasses. "Relax, boys," he finally says. "There's 300 million people in America who couldn't care less."
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