We've talked before about how interest in certain sports can wax and wane for some of us, and for whatever reason, I'm not even planning on pretending to be interested in the NBA this year until the swallows return to Capistrano. At least not in the supposed division races, which are meaningless, or in who'll make the playoffs.
Various games and issues and the National Weather Service Web site tracking Kobe Bryant's trade desires, sure. But the Clippers or New Orleans for that last spot in the West? Let me know how it comes out.
Of course I reserve the right to change my mind and become fascinated and bore you with NBA stuff at any time. And I am interested in how the off-season Tim Donaghy scandal, the official who got caught betting on the games he was officiating and then altering his calls to affect the outcome, is going to manifest itself as the season progresses.
I think that before that scandal hit, the seeming randomness of officials' calls, not the misbehavior or fashion choices of players, was the league's biggest public relations problem. I think the Donaghy scandal has made that worse, and it'll be interesting to hear the chatter after the first game-deciding call in an important game.
Of course, the next important game will be played after the swallows return to Capistrano, and anyway, predictions about fan responses to officiating do not a scintillating column make.
So here's the abbreviated set of predictions for 2007-08, and I hope I've convinced you by this point not to put any stock in them.
Western Conference finals: Phoenix Suns over San Antonio Spurs, because you know what they say about the Spurs in even-numbered years. The window is closing for the Suns, but I think they've got a Finals run in them.
Dallas is still relying on Dirk Nowitzki as the go-to guy, and I'm not buying the idea of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming both staying healthy all year. But if they do, make it Houston, with new power forward Luis Scola, over Phoenix.
Eastern Conference finals: Chicago Bulls over Cleveland Cavaliers, because I just sort of like the Bulls these days.
I sort of like the Eastern Conference generally. There don't appear to be any teams on the level of the three or four top teams in the West yet, but the overall quality is improving. I'm picking the Cavs to fail to repeat as conference champs not because I think they'll regress but because I think the rest of the conference will be tougher.
If Bryant gets traded to the Bulls, which is where the rumor needle is pointing, I have no idea how that affects their chances. I also think this is the year the current Detroit Pistons team suddenly gets old, though I don't think they'll be bad.
And I'm not buying the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Boston Celtics as any kind of serious threat to win the conference. Keep in mind I said the same thing about the Chicago Cubs after their similar off-season maneuver to purchase their way into contention, and that the Cubs won their division. But also keep in mind that that didn't necessarily prove me wrong, since they didn't have to be very good to win that division.
NBA Finals: Phoenix over Chicago. Or, you know, Houston. And maybe over Cleveland if a Kobe trade torpedoes the Bulls. And have I mentioned Orlando? But no, here it is: Phoenix over Chicago. Don't take that to the bank or anything. Just remember it and then ridicule me for it after the swallows return to Capistrano.
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Late World Series starts: Think of the children? [PERMALINK]
The abbreviated World Series gives us some time this week to muse about some leftover issues. Let's start with the start times.
Every year typists and civilians in the Eastern and Central time zones -- which is about three-quarters of the U.S. population -- complain about postseason games starting so late, which means they usually end after midnight. And since almost all games are on school nights, generations of kids are growing up unable to watch the most important games, the argument goes.
The networks say that a roughly 8 p.m. Eastern time start is the sweet spot that allows the most people to watch. There's no reason to believe that's not true, since the networks have every incentive to draw as many viewers as they can and none to say, "Let's screw three-fourths of the population by starting the games too late for them."
But the argument, one I've made myself, is that the late start times are undermining future fandom. If kids can't stay up late enough to watch the most important games, how are they going to become fans? The late-start policy is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
The problem with that argument is there's no evidence for it.
In an interview at the Biz of Baseball, Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal said that long-term ratings data shows that the later any game starts, the better the ratings across all demographics except 55 and over.
"For MLB postseason specifically," he told Biz of Baseball's Maury Brown, "ratings for all demos except the 55-plus crowd went up after 11 p.m., and the World Series year after year gets 4 to 6 percent of its total viewing audience from viewers aged 11 and under."
Fisher pointed out that two imperfect data sets are at war in this argument: the Nielsen ratings and the anecdotal experience of East Coast newspaper columnists who find themselves marching their own kids off to bed while the World Series game is just getting started.
The study that needs to be done is a rigorous look at what the all-late-night postseason is doing to youth interest in baseball. It would have to account for other factors such as the rise of other sports as well as new entertainments such as video games, on-demand movies and the Internet.
It recently dawned on me to look at the issue of the impact of late starts on kids' interest from the other direction.
Kids today have thousands more regular-season games on TV to choose from than kids in past generations. Growing up in the '70s, I felt lucky if there were four games on TV in one week, and I lived in a two-team city.
But a healthy percentage of postseason games were played in the daytime. I'm old enough to remember the first World Series night game, though as a West Coast kid, my own bedtime was rarely threatened by postseason baseball.
Let's say we reversed the situation. Let's say it used to be that there were thousands of regular-season games on TV, dozens every week, but the entire postseason was played at night. Then let's say it changed so that regular-season games were limited to one or two a week for the local team plus one national game, but the postseason was played mostly in the daytime.
I think we'd be complaining that kids were being robbed of the opportunity to become baseball fans. What's a few playoff games at the cost of a whole season's worth of ball!
I know I'd be saying that, and I know I'd be sure I was correct in my outrage. So I wonder if all us grown-ups whining about the late starts to postseason games because they're robbing kids of the chance to grow up with the game are really just complaining because things aren't the same as when we were kids.
The other complaint is that the game goes on too late for us grown-ups, who have to go to work in the morning. That's a lot more straightforward, but again, the numbers seem to say we're not voting with our off buttons. That's the only way the start times are ever going to change.
Previous column: Red Sox win World Series
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