Covering the NBA Finals bonanza
If you thought ESPN executives were privately rooting for a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, you would be wrong. They were privately rooting for a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals that extended to seven games.
In sports television circles, volume is the gold by which executive mansions are built upon.
"What will make the series a success? Seven games would be great for a start," said Tim Corrigan, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN on ABC's NBA Finals coverage. "But I think it's already a great series. You have two great franchises, a historic turnaround by the Celtics, a guy [Kobe Bryant] who is as popular as anyone in the world and Boston's Big Three, who have never won a championship. There's going to be a lot of buzz and we are thrilled."
The folks in Bristol are feeling giddy -- a conference call this week featured more laughter than a Comedy Central roast -- and with good reason. Sports Business Journal reported that ESPN boosted its ratings guarantee to advertisers to a 9.5 rating, up from last year's 8.5. Last year's Finals sweep (the Spurs over the Cavaliers) drew 6.2 percent of U.S. households, an all-time low. It was the fourth consecutive year the Finals rating slid, a downturn that will end thanks to a glamorous matchup featuring the nation's No. 2 (Los Angeles) and No. 7 (Boston) television markets.
The last time the Finals reached double-digit ratings (11.4) came in 2004, when the Pistons defeated the Lakers. While this series won't top the all-time Finals rating (the Bulls-Jazz series in 1998 averaged an 18.7 rating), it will produce a big number.
"You don't get the best matchup every year," said John Skipper, executive vice president for content for ESPN/ABC. "This year we got it."
For fans of those making six-figure salaries, Stuart Scott will host the pregame show, originating from the site of each game, with analysts Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon. Mike Tirico will call the games on ESPN Radio with analyst Hubie Brown and reporter Ric Bucher. Mike Breen will be joined by Mark Jackson and analyst-cum-comedian Jeff Van Gundy.
Production elements include 32 high-definition video cameras (up from 16 during the regular season) and Ultra Mo, a replay device recapping action at 250 frames per second. The coaches will be wired for sound, and the network will have pregame and halftime locker-room access.
The Finals will be televised to 205 countries and territories in 46 languages. In 1987, the last time the Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals, the games were televised to only 28 countries and territories.
Both Jackson and Van Gundy predict a long series. "It's a great contrast in strengths and it should be a compelling series," Van Gundy said. "I think for the Lakers to win it, they will have to win it on the road [in Game 6 or 7]."
With a nod toward the history of each franchise, ESPN is planning on a rotation of past Celtics and Lakers greats on the pregame show, beginning with Magic Johnson for Game 1 and Bill Russell for Game 2.
"We will show clips of the past but we also don't lose sight of the fact that there is a whole new group of Hall of Famers playing in this series," Corrigan said. "If we look up and see a bunch of former greats sitting courtside, we would certainly show them because that's another way to reach back into that time without going to clips."
What you won't see is Johnson, Russell or any other player from yesteryear on the mic during the broadcast.
"You have a better opportunity to see them and experience the game with them in the pregame environment where you are seeing them on camera tell their stories, as opposed to the course of the game," Corrigan said. "Because of the unscripted nature of the game, you can't predict when something may or may not happen. You don't want to have someone join your broadcast and these signature moments happen during that time."
Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive vice president, termed the Finals as "community viewing." That's a good description. The challenge will be to make the series appealing to a large base of curiosity seekers as well as NBA diehards.
"You don't try to get the 60-year-old at the expense of the 15-year-old, or the 15-year-old at the expense of 60," Williamson said. "You want community. You want people to understand the breadth and scope of this major event."
It's a major event, for sure. And if the series goes seven games, the winning team won't be the only one uncorking champagne.