season was mercifully put to rest weeks ago, but at Standings, a popular
Manhattan sports bar, the NBA is still so alive and well that owner Gary Gillis
has been staying open late to accommodate patrons who want to watch the end of
the Western Conference playoff games. The postseason has also kept eyes glued
to the big-screen televisions at Major Goolsby's, a Milwaukee watering hole
where the fans don't care that the only shots the Bucks are taking these days
are with golf clubs. "The games have been so exciting it's a joke,"
says owner Jon (Bingo) Berta. "One customer said, 'I don't even like NBA
basketball, but these games are changing my mind.'"
After years of
bashing the league for being boring, low-scoring and short on charismatic
players, viewers across the country are rediscovering the NBA, thanks to the
most entertaining postseason in the post-- Michael Jordan era. All three
networks televising the playoffs are enjoying a healthy bump in viewership
compared with last season. Ratings for ESPN telecasts are 16% higher, ABC's
have increased by 13%, and TNT's are 7% better.
Clearly, word is
spreading at the grassroots level that the NBA is watchable again. The playoffs
have provided such compelling theater that suddenly it doesn't matter that the
postseason lasts longer than a Hollywood marriage. Although it's too soon to
suggest that its popularity is back to the level of the 1980s and early '90s,
the league has at least reversed the trend of the last several years, when it
seemed that the only passionate fan discussions about the NBA centered on how
far it had fallen.
The playoffs have
helped the league reconnect with fans in a way that marketing strategies and
image-cleansing attempts like the dress code for players haven't. Concerns that
inked-up, bling-heavy African-American players were driving white fans away
from the game have been, if not erased, at least temporarily lessened. "The
game has always been the thing," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You
don't have to worry about ad campaigns or how many tattoos the players have. If
you put a quality product on the floor, the fans will be there."
increased Nielsen numbers have been the result of a perfect storm of
attention-getting factors. Start with drama: 24 of the 78 games played through
Sunday have been decided by five points or fewer, including 14 in which the
final margin was under three points. Five series went seven games, including
three of the four second-round matchups.
Star power has
helped too. LeBron James's first playoff appearance undoubtedly caused more
fans to tune in, and he didn't disappoint them. James had a pair of buzzer
beaters in the Cavaliers' first-round victory over Washington before he nearly
toppled the Pistons in Round 2. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, made his
return to the postseason after missing it a year ago. Along with the suddenly
highly entertaining Clippers, he helped bring the Southern California market
back into the NBA fold.
Of course, tight
games played by big-market teams led by household names won't happen every
year, but the brisker pace of the game promises to keep fans from drifting away
again. Gone for the most part are those tedious affairs in which defenses
clutched and grabbed, offensive players stood around watching isolation plays
and the winning team was lucky to break 80 points; they've been replaced by
games with a more fan-friendly style. "It's taken some time, but the
elimination-of-the-illegal-defense guidelines have been helpful," says
commissioner David Stern. "The game has become a little bit faster, with a
better flow to it."
The seeds of
change were planted in 2001, when Stern charged Jerry Colangelo, then the Suns'
owner and chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, with putting together a panel
of experts to revitalize a stagnant game. The resulting rules changes reduced
the amount of hand checking and bumping defenders could use to impede cutters,
dribblers and shooters. The benefits are on display every night, especially in
the West, where the Suns are a fast-breaking, three-point-shooting delight.
Phoenix's three playoff series, against the Lakers, the Clippers and the
Mavericks, have been high-scoring, must-see TV. In the Eastern finals even the
Pistons have added zip to their defensive style with crisp ball movement on
offense, and the Heat stresses slashes to the hoop by Dwyane Wade over low-post
banging by Shaquille O'Neal.
guarantee, of course, that the spike in popularity will last. But the league
might have learned something from this postseason. Its prodigal fans weren't
waiting for the next Jordan, the next ad campaign or for the racial composition
of the league to change. They were just waiting for the next good game.
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