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NBA: Why aren't you watching?

The finals go to Game 7, owners and players agree on a new labor contract, but playoff ratings are sagging. Is the fan base eroding?

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2005



A players' brawl started the NBA season and a labor brawl, solved by a buzzer-beating agreement Tuesday, closes it. Somewhere in-between, the league played basketball, filled its arenas at record rates, bickered over collective-bargaining issues, and lost much of its luster in the process.

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With the NBA Finals wrapping up Thursday night, professional basketball boasts a mixed bag: Full houses offset by abysmal national TV ratings, the measures by which major professional sports leagues gauge success. The Detroit Pistons-San Antonio Spurs series has been such a snooze that NBA executives have taken to bragging that it's not as ignored as the 2003 Spurs-New Jersey Nets Finals, the lowest-rated in league history.

Even before the dismal TV performance for the finals, NBA interest plummeted this spring. Ratings fell across-the-board for network-televised playoff games. On ABC, for example, playoff ratings dropped 26 percent heading into the finals.

"The NBA is lacking chemistry and the style and personalities that drove it during the 1980s and 1990s," says David Carter of The Sports Business Group, a consulting firm in Los Angeles. "And I don't think fans like the defensive struggles and pace of the game right now. That's why the bloom is off the rose."

League executives and analysts agree that the fading fortunes of two big-city teams, the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, also erode national interest and cost the NBA viewers in key markets.

San Antonio and Detroit, which battle in the seventh and deciding game Thursday night, boast stellar players. But not one has the allure of a Shaquille O'Neal or LeBron James. In addition, both finalists play a bruising brand of basketball, fine for purists but low on aesthetics for casual fans.

Until the new labor agreement was completed, much of the post-season - the high point of any sports league's year - consisted of verbal sparring between Commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, the head of the players' association.

Mr. Stern and the owners had threatened to lock out players if the current deal, which expires at the end of the month, lapsed without a revised agreement. Now the players and owners have another six years of assured labor peace. The deal raises the minimum age to enter the NBA draft to 19, shortens maximum player contract lengths to six years, increases the percentage of revenues shared with players to 57 percent, and allows for four random drug tests per year.

As Mr. Hunter put it at a Tuesday press conference before Game 6 of the Finals, the two lead negotiators "began to ratchet up the rhetoric" before they backed "away from the abyss." Stern added that the resolution allowed the league to "avoid the apocalypse."

With a new labor deal in place, players and owners must now confront other image issues.

Some experts see a disconnect between the corporate and well-heeled fans filling the prime seats at NBA arenas and those who watch games on TV, and buy the jerseys, sneakers, and video games.

NBA executives tout the more than 1 million tickets available for $10 or less at arenas across the country this past season. With record average attendance of 17,252 per game, league executives say the current formula is a resounding hit.

At the same time, though, the average ticket price is a hefty $45.28, according to industry newsletter Team Marketing Report, lower than the NFL ($54.75) but more than double the rate for Major League Baseball ($21.17). Those prices don't include so-called premium tickets - the best seats in the house - which in the NBA sell for $153.80, on average, per game.

An NBA player earns an average of $5 million per season, the highest in professional team sports.

"There is a lack of connection between players and fans because the players make so much money now," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "Players in the 1960s and 1970s used to live in the same neighborhoods as the fans. Now there is a wedge between fans and players, so there is no empathy. They live separate lives."

Publicly, Commissioner Stern says life has never been better for the league. For the players, with their guaranteed multimillion-dollar contracts, and the owners, with their soaring franchise values ($265 million, double the average of a decade ago), that is undoubtedly true.

"Our television viewing [internationally] and our relationship with our fans has never been better," Stern says. "Our sponsorship list is expanding with respect to major international consumer-product companies who want to reach their audiences through the NBA."

Even as the commissioner recites a litany of business statistics and anecdotes, he scrambles to repair pro basketball's tarnished image. Most recently, the NBA enlisted Matthew Dowd, a strategist on President Bush's campaign last fall, to help improve the league's reputation and cultivate a larger audience. Mr. Dowd declines comment on his work with the NBA.

As Mr. Carter notes, the NBA, more than any other league, carries the currency of popular culture, a double-edged sword since many of its young fans love seeing Will Smith offer a hip-hop number before tipoff. For just as many fans, the relentless blend of entertainment and sport can be off-putting.

"I think it's a very cool product," says Al Michaels, the ABC broadcaster calling the finals. "I think the marketing is very, very good." At the same time, he cautions, the players must be aware of their income source: "You need to stay connected to the fans."

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