Commentary: How Bad Is the NBA Hurting?

TV ratings are 35% below the Jordan era, but the playoffs are hot and Michael may be back

By Mark Hyman

Basketball junkies who've been mourning the retirement of Michael Jordan for three years were in for a shock on Apr. 21. The NBA playoffs kicked off with the most compelling matchups in recent memory. For example, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers exchanged elbows in an unexpectedly fierce first-round pairing.

Fans seemed plenty engaged, too. In San Antonio, which led the league in attendance, 33,983 showed up to watch the Spurs tangle with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. Playoff games in L.A., Milwaukee, New York, and Sacramento all posted sellouts.

In the post-Jordan era, the rap has been that the NBA is going backward. Goal-oriented workaholics such as Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson have been replaced by players who take more pride in tattoos and tough-guy personas than in winning, critics say.

ROLE MODELS. But is the NBA's thuggish image being overstated? Who is a worthier role model than scoring machine Tim Duncan of the Spurs or ball-handling whiz Sam Cassell of the Bucks? Both led their teams into the playoffs with style and humility. And, unlike Dennis Rodman, bad boy of the Jordan era, neither has shown up on TV in a wedding gown.

Not in dispute, though, is that the NBA's TV ratings still suffer from Jordan's 1998 exit. They are off 35% since the NBA signed its network contract with NBC and Turner four years ago. "Michael Jordan created an artificial blip in the ratings. He attracted a lot of people to the NBA who didn't ordinarily watch," says former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson.

The NBA's current deals--worth $2.6 billion--expire after the 2001-2002 season. A tight-lipped Commissioner David Stern says only: "We're expecting to increase our network television agreement." But industry insiders predict the league will net a slim premium at best. More than a 15% boost might be out of reach.

That would be weak tea for the NBA, which doubled the value of its broadcast deal last time around, and very different from recent TV negotiations involving other big leagues. Last year, for instance, Fox handed over a 50% boost for baseball's All-Star Game, playoffs, and World Series--despite eroding ratings.

Jordan could give some oomph to a potentially stagnant network TV contract. By the time the deal is signed for the 2002-2003 season, the twice-retired, 38-year-old icon may be in uniform again. Although Jordan says he has made no decision about playing for the woeful Washington Wizards, the franchise he partly owns, he has been working out with the team. And friends say he's leaning toward comeback No. 2.

Unfortunately for Stern, even the return of His Airness wouldn't clear a lane to the basket. Unlike the cable piece of the TV package, over which Turner and ESPN are expected to struggle, it's hard to see where the action for network rights will come from. NBC has a strong interest in retaining the games, which are the cornerstone of its depleted sports lineup. Since its last deal with the NBA, the network lost the NFL, suffered through the Sydney Olympics, and endured a disaster with the ratings-poor XFL.

Two potential buyers probably couldn't make a pitch for the games if they wanted to. Fox is showcasing NASCAR during the height of the NBA season; CBS is locked into coverage of NCAA basketball, culminating with the highly rated Final Four. That leaves ABC, which airs a hodgepodge of golf, college hoops, and figure skating opposite the NBA and which hasn't been spending on expensive sports programming lately.

Commish Stern isn't conceding anything. But privately he must be praying for more playoff action, Michael redux--and fewer tattoos.

Hyman is contributing editor for Sports Business.

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