Commentary: The NBA No Longer Needs Air

By Mark Hyman

There's nothing like an old-fashioned David and Goliath story to fire up interest in a sporting event. This year, the National Basketball Assn. has one of the best in memory. Facing off in the league's championship finals have been the Los Angeles Lakers, led by the 7-foot-1-inch behemoth Shaquille O'Neal, and the Philadelphia 76ers, whose play-making maestro is Allen Iverson, practically petite at 6 feet. It has been a heated rivalry: Each of the first three games have been decided in the final minutes of play. Throw in great play by the telegenic Laker Kobe Bryant, and there's clear evidence the NBA has a new lineup of exciting stars.

Now fast-forward to what next season could be: the saga of an (almost) 39-year-old geezer who hasn't seen game action in three years. Just as the league is finally moving beyond its post-Michael Jordan slump to develop new stars, there's talk that the former superstar, who has been busy managing a badly losing team, may try a comeback. But for all the delight of having the living legend back on the court, it may be a distraction the NBA doesn't need.

PEAK. Admittedly, Jordan was the best thing to happen to the NBA. During his 13 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, he not only collected six championships, he cranked up fan interest. By the time the Bulls won their last championship, in 1998, regular season attendance topped 17,000 per game, a level the team hasn't reached since. The Nielsen ratings for the NBA playoffs reached a peak of 18.7, and Jordan sold more branded merchandise than any player, ever.

Since Jordan's retirement in 1998, the league has lost its sparkle. Attendance has been off. Sales of shirts, caps, and other merchandise dipped from a peak of $2.1 billion a year to just $1 billion in 1999. And, without its superstar supreme, TV ratings during the playoffs slumped last year to a lowly 11.6.

Now, the league finally seems to be recovering from its post-Jordan hangover. Ratings are up. Fans are discovering tough new rivalries. And marketers are finding some hot representatives. Bryant, for example, boasts deals with Adidas (ADDDY ), Coke (KO ), and McDonald's (MCD ), among others.

And when it comes to hyping the game, nobody does it like Iverson. Madison Avenue initially found it hard to swallow his wall-to-wall tattoos and tough-guy strut, but Iverson is cleaning up his image and relating well to young fans. Five of the top-10-selling souvenir NBA jerseys this season carry his name, according to researchers Sport Scan Info.

Iverson also is increasingly good for the NBA's TV ratings. During the playoffs, Philadelphia logged consistently high viewership. Game 3 of the finals drew a 16.1 rating for the NBA, 24% higher than last year and not far below the rating of Jordan's last series.

Would a Jordan comeback send Iverson, Carter, and Bryant to the showers? Hardly. But if he returns, so inevitably does the weight of the Jordan legend. "Michael coming back would shift the focus away from those players," says Robert Williams, president of Evanston (Ill.)-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service Inc., a company that arranges endorsement deals for athletes.

Nor is a comeback likely to be that good for Jordan. There's the very real question of how well--and for how many seasons--His Airness could play. Amazing as Jordan was, at 39, he'd be one of the oldest players ever in the NBA, challenged by players 15 years younger than he is. And he's not likely to get much help. As part-owner of the hapless Washington Wizards, Jordan would move to the locker room of a team with one of the league's worst records

No doubt, it would be fun seeing Jordan battling today's new stars. But considering the distance the league has covered, the NBA would be better off concentrating on current stars than dragging fans down memory lane.

Hyman is contributing editor for Sports Business.

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