Why Are Basketball's Television Ratings Sagging?

New York Times sports columnist, Bill Rhoden, talks sports with Tony Cox, including the NBA's sagging TV ratings.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This may be playoff time for the National Basketball Association, but is anyone watching? NPR's Tony Cox stopped by to talk over the NBA's sagging ratings. He got some help from NEWS & NOTES resident sports expert Bill Rhoden.

TONY COX: So, Bill, I've been watching the playoffs on TV, and I guess I'm the only one, unless you're watching it also.

Mr. BILL RHODEN (Sports Columnist, New York Times): A snatch here. A snatch there.

COX: I don't understand. Now, you have Detroit. You have Cleveland with LeBron James. You have San Antonio with Duncan, and you have the Utah Jazz. On the NHL side, the Ducks and you have the Senators, and yet nobody seems interested in these contests. Why is that?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, I mean, first of all, hockey always has this problem. You know, for years it's a very - almost like a cult-like audience. And people - it just doesn't really resonate, generally. The NBA I'm a little - it's a little more - it's a little weird because just a few years ago we were talking about the world's game, you know, in the NBA. You know, last week, the most buzz that the NBA got was with the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio, Steve Nash and the fight.

COX: Right. And Robert Horry. That's right.

Mr. RHODEN: I mean, everybody was talking about that, they were watching it. And I think people like Steve Nash. I mean, you know, and they like the Phoenix Suns. You know, it was a big audience, you had a white star. And, you know, fortunately or realistically, that plays a big role.

COX: Are you saying having a white star plays a big role?

Mr. RHODEN: I think having a white star helps, you know.

COX: All right. Well, people like Golden State, though, and they became the darling. They didn't have a white star, necessarily.

Mr. RHODEN: Don Nelson. No, you know…

COX: (Unintelligible) argument that you could make Don Nelson…

Mr. RHODEN: No, no, no, but I think with Phoenix that was the component, that the star of thing was Steve Nash. And also, it was a very competitive series. Golden State was a very entertaining style of play. It was David and Goliath…

COX: Yeah, I guess you're right.

Mr. RHODEN: …taking all that. Utah, frankly, is a tough sell.

COX: They've got four stars that are white on Utah. If being white and a star is a factor…

Mr. RHODEN: Well, they're not stars like Steve Nash.

COX: Well, no, they're not that kind of star. But their main players outside of Carlos Boozer, they're white.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, but they're not exactly either.

COX: Okay. So nobody is going to watch that series.

Mr. RHODEN: It's time zones.

COX: Okay.

Mr. RHODEN: You know, the time zone's a problem. But I think the place where we will never have this conversation is where? The NFL. We will never have this kind of conversation about the NFL.

COX: Well, no, that's true.

Mr. RHODEN: Because everybody watches that sport.

COX: Well, let me - let's talk about something else before we move on away from the NBA, the draft…

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, okay.

COX: …which was a couple of days ago. It looks as if that the Western Conference with the top five picks - four of those five are going to Western Conference teams - Portland, Seattle and the Griz, three of the top five. Does that mean that the dominance of the West is going to continue just ad infinitum?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, it means that the NBA Draft, the lottery isn't rigged. Because, you know, if this thing was rigged, trust me, New York Knicks…

COX: New York and Boston. Yeah.

Mr. RHODEN: …the Boston. Were going to have the first…

COX: You got a point there. Absolutely.

Mr. RHODEN: And it's really, again, you know - see, the NBA, Tony, has backed itself into this corner because it's such a individual marketing sort of league. And now you're probably going to have Oden, who's going to be out in Portland, and Durant is going to be out in Seattle. And, you know, those teams, you don't - you get to see those teams every so often because they're out of the time zone.

COX: You get to see them every so often because they are out of your time zone.

Mr. RHODEN: And (unintelligible) place.

COX: We see them play. We see them all the time out here.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, you're out West, man. That's the whole, you know…

COX: Let's talk about football. You know, this thing about character, we've been discussing this quite a bit lately with the Commissioner Goodell cracking down on folks and suspending people. And now Michael Vick's name keeps popping up over and over and over again, and now the reaction, if people say the wrong thing about Michael Vick - and for those who don't know who we are talking about, he is the Atlanta Falcon's quarterback who has been a lightning rod for criticism in the Atlanta area, who has had some problems, not enough to get him busted per se, but enough to get people talking about him - and the latest one involves these dogs that apparently are being bred to fight at a location at a house that he owns.

Mr. RHODEN: He owns, and I think a relative, a nephew or someone, lived there. And it was his nephew who apparently was - or the relative, let's say, was the one who was doing these dogs. But, you know, you raise a great point. And, you know, Vick's name came up (unintelligible) Clinton Portis, who was very blunt. He basically said, you know, listen, these are, you know, his dogs. I mean, why are we so…

COX: Why are we (unintelligible)…

Mr. RHODEN: …interested in what goes on behind, you know, that, you know - so, of course, number one, dog fighting is a felony, first of all.

COX: Right.

Mr. RHODEN: You know, you're right. There's a law-and-order edict with Goodell, and so he immediately came out with a statement saying we're embarrassed for Clinton saying this stuff. This is not what the league is about. This is not what the Washington Redskins are about. This is not what the players are about. And I mean, I have to be - you know, I've got pets and dogs, and I don't like - I hate, you know, that kind of stuff. But at the same time, I think we're just hovering very close to censorship, where you can't even - don't even defend Michael Vick.

COX: Right. Right. It's an interesting situation because you look at what's occurring in the NBA, you look at what's occurring in the NFL with regard to trying to control people's conduct off the field as well as on the field. And this battle is ongoing, but it seems to be becoming more intense now.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, and this year, the NBA - what do we have with the NBA? No talking back to the officials. We already have a dress code, that kind of stuff. Four days ago, I'm looking at ESPN or something and there's this advertisement on for these two CDs about hockey fights, you know. One is called "Knockout," and then the other one's called "Best Hockey Brawls." And they were showing, yes, and you can get these - I mean, they were advertising the stuff. And you can argue, yeah, right, well, that's why nobody is watching the stuff, you know?

COX: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. RHODEN: But the point, though, is that in one sport there's the fighting and the violence not connected to the sport is being played up and put on CDs and, you know, watch this. And the NBA doesn't have - I mean, they don't have anything close to those kinds of fights. I mean, that's not even close.

And I just think that something else cultural is going on, Tony. You've got two sports that are - the stars and the primary players are African-American, and I think as long as what the league is saying is, listen, you know, we don't want to call any undue attention to race. Let's try to make this as neutral as possible. And so the dress has got to be in one way, and don't talk back to the officials, and just carry yourself just so. You're right.

And to any corporation, of course, all of us, whether it's me at the New York Times or you at NPR, wherever, sure, we represent our corporations no matter what we do. I just think that the NBA - and I think now the NFL - is really approaching - to make this point, they're really approaching a level of censorship. And I'm wondering where's the NFL Players Association on this? You know, where is Gene Upshaw on this?

COX: Absolutely. Well, you know, we're going to have to keep our eye on that, because our time is running out and I'm going to have to censor our conversation for the rest of today. But before you do get away, Bill Rhoden, here's two questions for you. NHL - who's going to win the cup?

Mr. RHODEN: NHL. Well…

COX: That's the National Hockey League, in case you forgot.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.

COX: You like the Ducks? You like the Senators?

Mr. RHODEN: You know, I like the Ducks. I like Disney. It's one of my favorite companies of all time.

COX: You want the Ducks. And in the NBA, who is going to make it? I won't even ask you who's going to win the title. Who is going to make…

Mr. RHODEN: I like the Pistons, you know, it's San Antonio and the Pistons, and I like the Pistons winning everything.

COX: All right, we'll see. Bill Rhoden, you're the guy who should know.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, just don't ask me too many more hockey questions.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with NEWS & NOTES resident sports expert Bill Rhoden. Bill is also a sports columnist for the New York Times, and he joined us from NPR's New York studios.

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CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES: Bust out your leather. We're riding with the black biker social club. Plus, time for your letters.

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