Thursday, June 14, 2007


This is a lenghty piece because, quite honestly, it's pissing me off.

There's an unfortunate prevailing thought during these NBA Finals that if there were two large market teams involved that the ratings would be much higher than they sit now. If the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls or (considering the amount of people in this country with ties to the region) Boston Celtics were in the Finals, the ratings would shoot through the roof.

In the carefully selected words of
Don Vincent: "Ha, you find it funny? You find it funny? Huh?"*

For those who aren't amused by this, let's take a stroll through the jagged forest of basketball media in the last fourteen years.

When Michael Jordan retired after the 1993 season, the Bulls were still able to contend for a title, but were upended by the Knicks in the second round. New York, led by Patrick Ewing, made the push to the '94 Finals, but in a vastly-underrated series, fell to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The series boasted the best matchup of centers since the Lakers and Sixers tilts in the early 1980s and was the only Finals in the nineties that went seven games. It had the drama that the media clamors for with great defense, the Dream Shake, momentum-changing threes and those "what the hell" moments that Knicks fans do not need reminders of. With the largest US market and (at the time) a growing Houston market, it should have eclipsed the 1992 Finals between the Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers, with the third and twenty-third largest markets in the country.
They were the lowest rated of the decade.

Shaquille O'Neal made his first appearance on the grand stage thanks to a little help from Penny Hardaway and Dennis Scott, avoiding the Knicks and Jordan ruining the Bulls' chemistry in his late-season comeback (let's be for real). The Rockets, now with Clyde Drexler, swept the young Orlando Magic (who play in the 34th largest-market) in the 1995 Finals.
"Kazaam" may have came out at the wrong time or maybe Shaq didn't curse enough on his rhymes, but the ratings tanked again.

There was that three year period where the Bulls did okay. And media heads from all walks of light bowed to His Airness. All was well until he left again.

The Knicks made a miracle run to the 1999 Finals as an eighth seed thanks to Allan Houston's running jumper against Miami in the first round, Marcus Camby going ballistic on Dikembe Mutumbo and the Atlanta Hawks and Larry Johnson's 4-point play (notice that the camera angle used to show the crowd on that play has become standard fare in today's sports) against Indiana. They did what the Golden State Warriors didn't after knocking out Dallas two months ago; they ran the table. Then, they met San Antonio and without Ewing being available, Tim Duncan and David Robinson went to town in the low post for five games. Just as bad ratings wise as 1994.

The Lakers' threepeat in the early 2000s began with a six-game defeat of the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were a old, veteran laden team, but with Reggie Miller, the game's second most dramatic player over the last twenty-five years, there was a chance for more heroics and hero/goat debates. The ratings, on average, were a half-point higher than Spurs-Knicks the year before, despite the fact that both San Antonio (29) and New York (1) are larger markets than Indianapolis (40) and Los Angeles (2). San Antonio also happens to have the seventh-largest populus in the country.

Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers were swatted in five games in 2002. Kobe and Shaq played hot potato with the basketball and shared the fun once in a while with arguably the best bench to ever participate in the championship series. Three future Hall-of-Famers and superstars from media markets number two and four, respectively. A ratings rebound since Jordan's second retirement. Great.

Then the Nets showed up. The turnaround season led by Jason Kidd gave way to the first of back-to-back Finals appearances. People believed that because the Knicks were no longer competitive that New York fans would jump ship to watch their counterparts in New Jersey. Jersey is split by the New York and Philadelphia markets.
And ratings fell again.

Spurs/Nets followed. Fans didn't. Yes, this was the first season with the new broadcasting deal with ABC/ESPN, but that meant little. Until this '07 series, the '03 Finals are the lowest rated of the decade so far and the lowest since the late seventies. By the way, Kenyon Martin went 3-for-23 in Game 4. Why did he, a PF who is far from a jumpshooter or low post threat, take 23 shots? Anyway...

Detroit (tenth-largest) shocked the Lakers in 2004. Personally, I had an excuse of not watching the Finals - I was in London, a city not of huddled masses of basketball lovers, throughout the conference finals and the NBA Finals. Apparently, others had their own excuses.
Closer to the Lakers/Sixers series, yet still not good enough to the sports media.

The Purists Finals between the Pistons and Spurs...
if the series didn't go seven games, this would have made the Lakers/Nets series look like American Idol in its prime.

Last season's finale between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat featured three superstars and nothing but juicy storylines involving Mark Cuban vs. David Stern, the shady workings of Pat Riley, the next player to be compared to Mike in Dwayne Wade and the centerstage for the world to see Dirk Nowitzki. A potent offense with improved defense against the media magnet called the Big Diesel. A comeback for the ages by Miami. Dallas/Fort Worth (fifth-largest) against Miami/Fort Lauderdale (eleventh).
Ratings between 9.0 and 11.1. Games 5 and 6 saved the series.

So, here we are in 2007, hearing how if the Phoenix Suns were in the Finals (which just wasn't going to happen) that the ratings would be phenomenally better. With their fast-paced offense that doesn't believe in the shot clock, the Suns were given all the credit this side of Pluto for a 'renaissance' in the NBA. Steve Nash got forechecked by Robert Horry, which made this cry about the ratings this time even louder as the Spurs were able to bounce Phoenix en route to another Western title and a fourth Finals appearance. Yet, they would still have to have to play a team from the Eastern Conference. No matter if it was Detroit, Cleveland or the Eastern Conference All-Star team, we would face a similar conundrum as with the Lakers/Nets; a much ballyhooed Western team against a Eastern team overmatched, no matter how many highlights they amass during the season. The ratings will still sink.

Truthfully, ratings were iffy in the eighties, when the Lakers and Celtics won eight championships in the decade. The Lakers had the flash and the Celtics had the grit, but just as a New York team brings out the ire of much of the country, Los Angeles and Boston aren't exactly cities that endear their hearts, either. Yet, because the league had been in horrendous shape prior to the arrival Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the NBA in the eighties are move revered than any other period in sports in the modern era. It was a time that went away from the constant fights and the drug problems of the league in the late seventies despite the fact that defense was just as hard as in the 1990s, a period much maligned because of defense. Johnson and Bird were beloved starting with the 1979 NCAA final and no one turned back. Yet, ten years later, Magic and Larry were afterthoughts. The NBA tasted the success that the NFL enjoys now without them. How?


Don Vincent: "So, wait, you ain’t hear me, huh? Okay, I’ma say it again."


When Jordan dominated the NBA in the nineties, the Lakers and Celtics went south. The Celtics haven't been relevant since, even with the admired #33 on his last legs. Magic announced he had HIV and went through the revolving door a few times before staying away from the court. The ratings were outwordly thanks to his insane marketing push and phenomenal play. He backed up the talk around him and thensome. We're talking about a man whose logo is equal in recognition with the Golden Arches of McDonalds and The Holy Cross - that is no exaggeration. The most casual sports fan in the world watched the NBA playoffs because of Jordan and nothing else. Add to the fact that were far less entertainment options even ten years ago than there are today, and the league's strongest ratings period has been the litmus test that every season has been compared to since. Because of this unique and successful combination, media heads clamor of the drama, beg and plead for the storylines and pray that we lap it all up.

Re-seeding the teams in the playoffs? Taking the top sixteen teams regardless of conference? Shortening the playoffs? Come on, now. It's amazing that these Finals feature the things that the media and fans are asking for, yet we are spending more time analyzing the ratings and coming up with solutions to fix the playoffs than actually talking about the teams themselves. Granted, these Finals... well, they suck, however on one end is the team concept and the other has 'The Next One' carrying his team to the promised land (or close enough to see it). It's time for the world to understand a few things:

First of all, the NFL is king because it has no choice but to be king. By nature of the sport, you're not going to have a season that lasts for six or seven months and you're not going to have teams playing more than one game a week (other than holiday games). Plus, when these tax-funded stadiums only host a minimum of ten games a year (two preseason, eight regular season), limiting availability of tickets, they better have the best television product. It's unfair, tiring and short-sighted to compare every league to the NFL.

Secondly, community television programming is over. We all have options to watch whatever we want. In a time where there is more entertainment options than ever, the person that watched the NBA because of Mike isn't watching anymore. (S)He wasn't a fan of the NBA to begin with. (S)He is going to watch programming more tailored to her/him. The fans of other teams in the league are not going to watch two teams they don't like at all, just as all other sports except the NFL. This elimates the large market excuse because even within those markets, people will watch whatever they want, even if it's not sports.

Third, scripting the legacies of potential superstars as we media heads have done needs to stop. Michael Jordan was unique and carefully crafted to become Michael Jordan. We, as the recorders of society, are trying to copy the same model to anyone who can dribble a ball and smile, yet the consumer is not dumb. They know that these "Nexts" are copies and can never be the original, nor should they be. Let LeBron write his own story.

Finally, it's time to face the most painful reality of all. The Jordan Era is over. Period. And, you know what? It's going to be okay.

Say What?!?!: This inconsistency exists in all sports. Please chime in on what you see wrong with how the media perceives other sports.
* - If you are devout in your faith, you may not find The Spirit of Truth very amusing. I apologize to anyone that may have been offended, but I do hope you see why it's funny, even to someone who believes.

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