A great American sports brand is in trouble. The NBA season started, and David Stern has admitted that if ratings continue to pummel he will be concerned. Commissioner Stern, be concerned.
Last year’s four game sweep by the San Antonio Spurs was the lowest rated series in NBA history. The 6.5 series rating was 27% percent lower than the 2006 finals. This despite the presence of LeBron James, the NBA’s supposed new king. By comparison the League’s 1998 finals didn’t have a game lower than 16.2 in the ratings.
Like many my appetite for the NBA is disappearing quickly. As a youth I was captivated by the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and the play of Magic, Bird and Dr. J. I rooted for the Lakers and watched as these teams went up and down the court in high intensity games.
I continued my love of the NBA in the 1990’s as Michael Jordan led the Bulls on an amazing championship run. Who can forget Jordan’s remarkable 30+ first half vs. Portland and his emotional victory after he returned from his hiatus? He became not only a sports hero but an iconic figure in sports.
But in the last few years the NBA has gone from the hottest sports league in the country to one with significant problems both on and off the floor. Other than a few shots of Eva Longoria at last year’s finals, the series was a complete bore. The games featuring two plodding half court teams were a far cry from the up-tempo Lakers-Celtics days. America has turned off the NBA in droves. Regular season ratings are down between 2.0 and 2.5, barely above the NHL.
The current problems actually began at the end of the league’s heyday. The bad-boy Detroit Pistons with their rough house style created a style of play that saw teams slowing the game down. Millionaire coaches eager to control everything and prove their worth to the latest billionaire sucker suddenly put up a stop sign on fast break basketball. Pat Riley, Mike Fratello, and Gregg Popovich all turned a league full of race horses into plow horses. Instead teams began playing half court, milking the shot clock and using an ugly pick and roll isolation.
Scores plummeted and coaches gave the credit to great defense. Baloney! Scores went down because teams other than Phoenix and Denver don’t look to run anymore. Player and ball movement (two staples of basketball) came to a grinding halt, except for Phil Jackson’s triangle approach or the Princeton system that Sacramento, New Jersey and Washington use.
A typical NBA game now has three guys on the side standing around while the team superstar works one-on-one, this after the team walked up the court and got the shot clock down to 10 seconds. Instead of 110-104 scores have routinely become 82-76.
Part of this is also the players fault. This generation is the most fundamentally flawed. Why do you think we are getting beat with a regularity in international play? Most NBA players are poor shooters and passers and rely too much on their athletic ability. Nobody was more athletically gifted than Jordan, but he worked tirelessly on his fundamentals. He became a good shooter and was a great passer. Let’s not even get into shot selection. Look at the number of three’s hoisted up, by players that have no business shooting them.
More troubling, the NBA has more players who take the night off than just about any other sport out there. On a given night you’re not sure what you are going to get effort-wise. Most blame the number of games and travel. Didn’t they play 82 games during the Magic-Bird era? Don’t most teams travel better these days? Don’t they have either private planes or charters? I doubt the Wizards are flying coach.
The NBA marketing strategy of promoting stars also seems to have backfired. Kobe Bryant is now the poster boy for a league in which the star runs the teams, gets what he wants, and still blames the team for its failure. I haven’t even mentioned the off the court problems of babies like Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest or the selfish play of Stephon Marbury.
The league’s hip hop culture is driving fans away especially in the suburbs, where fans don’t identify. This brand isn’t playing in Peoria anymore. The brilliance of Magic, Bird and Jordan was that they brought casual fans to the game. The game is losing ground again to baseball, college basketball, NASCAR, and even soccer in the suburbs.
At the arena, the game has become indoor soccer of the 1980’s–music during every possession, clown shows, and zero atmosphere as sky-high ticket prices make the front row seem more like a board meeting. Something has to be done to bring back families and 18-34 year olds. I give Mark Cuban credit; at least he is colorful. Do you think part of this circus is an attempt to cover up for a lousy on the court product? Cuban has challenged Stern many times saying the league needs to improve its marketing and officiating.
The NBA owners, players and the players’ union need to shake up this product on and off the court immediately.
For starters, the NBA has to adopt the international rules of the wide lane and shorter three point line. The court needs to be widened as well; the players are much bigger and have simply outgrown the court. These rules would promote player and ball movement and likewise would necessitate players who can play within the rules. Outside shooting and high basketball IQ would replace vertical leaps as a requirement for players. Think Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Michael Redd.
Owners need to hire coaches committed to a full court running style like Mike D’Antoni of Phoenix and not the ego-maniacs who want to control every play like they are Vince Lombardi. This isn’t the NFL; coaches shouldn’t call every play. Get the game back into the fast lane.
The league needs to find a way to promote the teams and not the individuals like the NFL and the English Premier League have done so successfully. A great rivalry like Celtics-Suns or Heat-Lakers wouldn’t hurt. It should mean something other than a soap opera to be a Laker or Celtics player or fan. Trust me, the Green Bay Packers brand will live on even after Brett Favre is gone.
Somehow, Stern needs to work with the players’ union to gain control of the players in order to prevent the porous effort these guys show at times. If there are too many games, cut the season to 70 games and limit the back to backs
These moves would also translate to the stands as a more exciting and quicker pace which would remove some of the gimmick marketing. The product on its own when played right is too good to become a second class Broadway show.
Act quickly Commissioner Stern or else you might end up like the NHL, a niche sport that gets stuck on a third rate cable channel. Your great legacy is going up in smoke and your game is in trouble.