overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At The Buzzer
Shaquille O'Neal: The NBA's Only Ratings Hope

by Alan Bloom

The second season is upon us. It is playoff time in the National Basketball Association, and while that alone is cause for excitement, Commissioner David Stern has plenty of reason to be concerned. True, scoring is up across the league. Yes, there is much intrigue and debate over who will claim the league's "Most Valuable Player" award this season. So what's the problem? You mean aside from getting beaten by Nascar in the ratings as recently as the final week of the regular season? Well, heading into the playoffs, there are four specific problems.

  1. No Kobe and the Lakers — Not only are this year's playoffs without the number two television market in the country, but in losing the presence of the Los Angeles Lakers, the league loses a playoff constant. The Lakers were a perennial championship team over the last 5 years, failing to reach the finals only once in that span. Fans recognize the Lakers. They are — were — a team that encapsulated Hollywood flare and dramatics on the basketball court. Additionally, they had the two most visible stars in the league: Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most controversial athlete of the last two years, and Shaquille O'Neal, who has since left town for Miami, bringing the national spotlight with him from Hollywood to South Beach.

  2. No Kevin Garnett — The league's reigning MVP, and perhaps the best all-around player in the game, is sitting at home this spring. In fact, both Western Conference finalists from last year missed the playoffs. If you're a fan of parity, this is excellent. However, the league cannot be too thrilled about the fans' lack of familiarity with the title contenders this season.

  3. No LeBron James — The league's collective heartbeat and the pulse of ad execs everywhere flatlined when the latest heir apparent to Michael Jordan and his Cleveland teammates missed the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. This Powerade commercial is all you need to see in order to understand how much the NBA values "King James". Kobe Bryant's fall from grace coincided with James' emergence on the scene and, as a direct result, the number of nationally televised Cleveland games jumped dramatically.

  4. No New York — Granted, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic to watch this season, but New York remains the number one television market in the nation. New York's absence coupled with no LA means problems for the ratings.

When I tuned in to game one of the Detroit/Philadelphia series, the broadcast opened with a highlight reel featuring many a shot of Bryant, Garnett, and James. The NBA prides itself on showcasing its stars, but this can only be construed as an obvious sign of trouble. People are going to be wondering where those players are every time they see their faces during the pre-game hype. So who is left to rally around? How about Tim Duncan? The former MVP might arguably be the best player in the league. However, fans will struggle to think of any commercials for shoes or soft drinks featuring the stoic Duncan. Steve Nash leads a potent attack in Phoenix, the team that captured the best regular season record, but only this season has he broken through into first-tier star status with his MVP-caliber performance. Even now, his popularity pales mightily in comparison to players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Allen Iverson is actually a player who will garner interest nationwide, thanks largely to his dubious reputation as a troublemaker and controversial figure. Iverson, however, has experienced an awakening in the past year and has made a conscious effort to clean up his act. It is incredibly unlikely that Philly will put up a fight in the first round though, as they are overmatched against defending champion Detroit. Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas and Yao Ming of Houston both curry a lot of attention, but their ratings potential is lessened for the same reason that ice hockey's popularity is waning in the United States. American sports fans do not typically rally around foreign athletes. So while the numbers may be decent in Germany and China, the interest State-side is still questionable. Even Reggie Miller playing in his final post-season won't rope in a national audience.

David Stern still has one ray of sunshine though, and it is definitely among his largest. This season, that ray plays ball in Miami.

Shaquille O'Neal is the face of the NBA, and perhaps its most popular player. No other man in the league has his charisma (which he disguises well in locker room interviews), his playful personality, or the ability to drop nicknames on himself, such as "The Big Blessing," "The Diesel," and, my personal favorite, "The Big Aristotle." You're telling me that a 7'1", 300 lbs. monster of a man is going to dominate on the court and then call himself "The Big Aristotle" during the post-game press conference and you're not going to watch? Fat chance, my friend. Shaquille, most recently with the Lakers from 1996-2004, has failed to appear in a finals only once in the last five years (2003) and, by no coincidence, it was the same season the NBA experienced its lowest Nielsen ratings in 27 years.

O'Neal's ultimate star power brings a lot to the table. For one, there is the opportunity to showcase Dwyane Wade, perhaps the next Magic Johnson to LeBron's Michael Jordan. Wade is a newer, fresher, more likable sidekick than Kobe; The Flash to Shaquille's Superman. Speaking of the former sidekick, a Shaq championship would bring some long-awaited closure to the Shaq/Kobe feud, the biggest story in the NBA for the last three years or so up until last March. Kobe has missed the playoffs, yes, but fans wouldn't mind seeing the perceived "good guy" (Shaq has transformed Miami from a good team to a title favorite with charisma and class) rub a little salt in the wound of the "bad guy" (the ship is sunk in LA and all fingers are pointing at the selfish Kobe) with a title.

There's also the marketing to think about. The spokesman is everything when advertising basketball. O'Neal is sponsored by Nestle Crunch, Reebok, Pepsi, and Burger King. Nike loses a lot of steam with LeBron's lack of inclusion in the playoffs. Sure, his commercials will run, but fans seeing them will be wondering where his team is and, thus, will be disappointed and perhaps lose interest in the product. Adidas and McDonalds dropped Kobe Bryant over "image" problems. Nike really only became a juggernaut because of one man: Michael Jordan. So you can see why, from a marketing standpoint, it is imperative to the league that their star players excel. Now more than ever, David Stern will be cheering for Miami to advance to the finals as if it was his job. The biggest obstacle to Stern's happiness and the league's financial success this post-season is Detroit. The same Detroit who won the title last year? The defending champs? Yes. The very same Detroit who's slow, down, grinding style of basketball has put many a viewer, casual and passionate fan alike, into a coma. Boring? Yes. Granted, they posted over 100 points in game one against Philly, but this is the same team capable of scoring 64 points — and winning! Ew! That's the antithesis of what Miami brings to the ratings game.

Phoenix? They're from Phoenix. They play the kind of attractive, exciting basketball not seen in this league since the heyday of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. But the city of Phoenix simply does not garner national media attention like a New York or a Chicago, or even a Miami. The casual fan isn't aware that the Suns are so incredibly fun to watch, and that has everything to do with being in Arizona and playing most of their games anywhere between 10pm-Midnight ET. San Antonio? Did I mention how drab Duncan is? Or that the Spurs were the team that nobody watched win the title in 2003? There's a decent chance that the Spurs get upset in the first round by Denver (a strong team in their own right). If that happens, say goodbye to any intrigue the Western Conference may hold.

The NBA is driven fully on star-power. The die-hards like me will still be watching, but Joe Casual probably won't even notice the playoffs are on unless Shaq and Miami reach the finals.

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