NBA Finals Matchups May Not Matter to the NBA

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April 19th, 2008

Update: the last 20 years of nationally broadcast NBA playoffs and NBA finals Nielsen ratings are here

I took in way too many sports today watching all or parts of:

  • Washington Capitals Winning to force a game six with the Philadelphia Flyers Monday night
  • Washington Wizards losing, pretty much single-handedly to Lebron to go down one game
  • San Francisco Giants actually winning a game (Tim Lincecum can pitch)
  • Phoenix Suns Losing in double-OT to the San Antonio Spurs.

Tim Duncan Leads the Spurs to VictoryI was spent by 3:30pm PDT.  While I am 99% certain that Lebron or no, the Cavaliers aren't going back to the finals, I'm certain of little else.  Despite today's victory by the Spurs, I'm not sure about their return either.  But until they are not in, I can't and won't bet against Tim Duncan.

The best matchups don't always produce the best ratings.  The dream scenario for the NBA is probably either a final featuring the Phoenix Suns or LA Lakers where you have Steve Nash, and Shaq on one hand, and Kobe on the other.  I'm not sure what's the best team from the eastern conference from a ratings perspective We saw what happened when Lebron went to the finals against San Antonio.  A.) The Cavaliers were completely destroyed and B.) the ratings kind of sucked.

But a lot has happened since last year in the NBA with all the various trades that changed the fates and the look of many teams.  One thing we can be sure of is that any finals involving the San Antonio Spurs is not a great outcome ratings-wise for the NBA.  Why?

Guys like Kobe, Shaq, Lebron - they're all ROCK STARS.  Hollywood all over the three of them. It feeds them, and they're good at it.  Tim Duncan is not Hollywood, or a rock star.  He's just a superstar who doesn't crave the limelight like those other guys.  He does all his talking on the court and even on his own team he might not be the biggest star.  You could argue Tony Parker is way more Hollywood by virtue of his wife, Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria.

Sports talk is abuzz with how the NBA would like to see a finals matchup of the Lakers and the Celtics, but such chatter is mostly coming from people my age or older.  People who are old enough to remember the classic Lakers/Celtics matchups from the 1980s.  I don't know if it that matchup would actually produce good ratings though.   The Lakers being in would be a plus and I'm sure they would draw more casual viewers than San Antonio. I think Phoenix would too because of Shaq.   And if the Cleveland Lebrons could get back into the finals facing off against Phoneix or LA would probably produce much better ratings than playing San Antonio.

But I'm not sure the Celtics would produce that outcome.  I'd love to see it, personally, but I'm old. I also follow basketball and I know the Celtics are damn good and that Kevin Garnett is a beast.   But when it comes to his stardom, he strikes me as a whole lot more Tim Duncan than Kobe, Shaq or Lebron.  He's a superstar on the court, but off of it?  I'm not sure it attracts the casual viewer.

Personally I think all of the playoffs will be so good this year, even the finals that I don't care who gets in or what the ratings are. And being honest, I don't think David Stern and crew really give a rat's behind about ratings.  I mean if they want to move the Seattle Supersonics out of the 14th best television market to Oklahoma City, the 45th best - it's pretty clear than when the NBA  thinks about how it makes its money, the Nielsen ratings aren't a top factor.   Whether David Stern is insane or not on that score, I have not yet decided.   The television markets notwithstanding, the NBA has put an outstanding product out this year and national ratings on ABC are up ~10% and up on ESPN by 14%.

In almost any case, I think it's likely this year's finals will get better ratings than last year's, save perhaps a Detroit vs. San Antonio matchup, which at this juncture is still by no means out of the question. 

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