Friday, June 15, 2007

Bottomed Out

Now LeBron James knows how kids on the high school teams he manhandled felt. Pimple faced 16-year-olds against future NBA hall of famer’s has one thing in common with Spurs-Cavs, mismatch. Nothing short of James repeating his heroic Game Five performance against Detroit will make this series competitive. This is 49ers-Chargers, Bills-Cowboys, Lakers-Nets, a total blowout. This years NBA Finals is the epitome of team over player, the Spurs legion of team defense and unselfish offense totally outclassing King James and his minions.

On the court, put this NBA Finals on the list of least competitive ever, and Cleveland as one of the worst Conference Champs. Off the court, despite the marquee face of today’s NBA, the 2007 is on pace to be the lowest TV-rated NBA Finals, continuing the trend of public media struggles for the NBA and NHL.
I often wax poetic about TV ratings, but I think it is a telling stat as to the quality of the product and the complete package a league delivers to the fans. David Stern publicly admitted the games stunk. Who wants to watch an NBA struggle to reach 70 points? The NBA’s biggest problem this season is the two best teams played in Round 2, Phoenix and San Antonio. That series crowned the champion. The last few weeks were more a coronation than a competition, not exactly compelling TV.

Always the spin doctor, Stern mentions the numerous alternate media outlets and television choices as a cause for the ratings decline. He is on the money, people have lower attention spans, more options, and will go elsewhere if not compelled.

How does the NBA fix this? First, do not change the playoff system too drastically. The Eastern Conference stinks, but competitive balance is cyclical. Recall the 11 straight Super Bowls by the NFC, when the NFC Championship games crowned the de facto champion. Looks like the NFL survived. Find a way to market the Spurs. The NBA was unprepared to make an NBA Finals with two mid-market cities a ballyhooed event. They needed LA, NY, or Miami. The Spurs, and Tim Duncan, are all-time greats. They play a boring, methodical, efficient brand of basketball, but they are great. Find a way to sell it to the whole country.

My other gripe is the scheduling. It is not solely an NBA problem, baseball and hockey suffer from it too. Do not start games at 9 PM EST on weeknights. You automatically cancel out a large part of your audience. Children, the lifeblood of the leagues future, will not stay up late, and it is a harder sell to East Coast adults to hang with a 20-point blowout with one dreary eye open. The NBA also struggles with spreading out the series too much in the early rounds. The lack of continuity early in the playoffs prevents any momentum from building. Who wants to wait out two or three days to see what happens next? Today, there are too many alternatives to care. Casual fans lose interest early in the playoffs, and obviously are not tuning back in.

There are some drastic playoff changes the league can take, a new marketing approach, or even a different schedule. Some may help ratings and playoff competition, some may not, but the league cannot fix the quality of play on the court. The teams just have to get better. Cleveland needs to look in the mirror and realize LeBron James carried them despite an NBA D-League caliber roster. Get the guy some help, and quick. Remember, he adjusted that contract last season to get out a little earlier. You think the NBA likes the idea of LeBron in NY or LA? That is the quick fix.


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