Booming NBA popularity faces built-in restraints

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This is unquestionably a period of progress and prosperity for the National Basketball Association, which once fell well short of its perceived potential. At the start of the current season, Business Week ran a story about the boom in NBA popularity and profits. The trend continued during the next five months, when network TV ratings climbed and attendance topped 11 million for the first time in the league's 40-year history. Still, the NBA continues to chase the Big Two of American pro sports, baseball and football. Among the factors that challenge the league in bridging the gap are these: The NBA's best-of-seven championship is not as clearly defined and identifiable as the Super Bowl or World Series. It is a rather disjointed event, the scheduling of which seldom follows a discernible pattern. Then too, the climactic games are wrenchingly out of season, with thoughts focused outdoors, not indoors.

The NBA must share its turf with college basketball, which has more schools competing at the top level than does college football. And because the personality of college basketball differs so much from the high-scoring pro game, fan crossover is not assured. Detractors, for instance, still argue that the meat of most NBA games is found in the last two minutes, when the team that spurts last wins. This is simplistic, but not without some truth.

Like jazz, which is often used as a metaphor for the game, basketball is highly improvisational, especially in the up-tempo NBA. Casual fans don't always appreciate or understand this organized confusion.

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