TV Ratings Slipping for NBA Playoff Games

The pro basketball playoff season is in full swing and marquee player Shaquille O'Neill is back in action, but television ratings for the National Basketball Association have slipped during this year's final games. Mike Pesca reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

A couple of sports stories now. The National Basketball Association's TV ratings are down this year. League officials say it's just a blip, but critics say there may be more fundamental problems with the game itself. Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

If you didn't watch the big game last night and don't plan to watch tonight, you have a pretty good excuse: No one's playing. But what's your excuse for the last month? Over the course of the NBA playoffs, ABC's ratings are down 30 percent. TNT's and ESPN's ratings are down, too.

Jeffrey Norman is a sometimes sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the National Review. He doesn't visit locker rooms; he just critiques the game as entertainment. For him, watching the NBA isn't fantastic. It's frustrating.

Mr. JEFFREY NORMAN (The Wall Street Journal; National Review): I'm still a kind of a check-in kind of a guy. And if I check in and it looks like the game is close and hot and it's a couple of teams I'm interested in, I'll watch for a while. But the idea of, you know, microwaving some popcorn and opening a cold beer and sitting down, you know, for the tip-off and the whole game, that's a real, real rare thing with me anymore.

PESCA: Indications of the NBA's popularity are mixed. Attendance was up this year, but that other big source of revenue, merchandise, suffered a double-digit drop in sales. John Lombardo of the Sports Business Journal says the lack of stars is cutting into ratings.

Mr. JOHN LOMBARDO (Sports Business Journal): There's a few players that everyone wants to watch. LeBron James is certainly one of them. Kobe Bryant's another one. Shaquille O'Neal's another one. I mean, there's not a tremendous amount of these stars that are going to carry the ratings as a LeBron will.

PESCA: Or, more accurately, as LeBron would have if his team had made the playoffs. The same with Kobe Bryant's Lakers. Overall, however, Lombardo believed that ratings are cyclical. Luck plays a big role. It's not anyone's fault that two of the league's biggest stars aren't playing in the big room this postseason.

Television consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, emphasizes that the NBA is healthy, and a minor ratings slide is nothing for them to worry about. He says that a lot of the negativity you might read about in Sports Illustrated or hear on a radio report coming out of New York, for instance, comes down to something that has nothing to do with the overall health of the league.

Mr. NEAL PILSON (Television Consultant): Let me mention a huge intangible. How the New York Knicks play in the New York market is a huge intangible because so much of the media and so much of the sponsorship and advertising executives live and work in the New York area.

PESCA: When things are going good, when the Knicks or Lakers or a few captivating stars are thrilling fans, some of the NBA's other choices go down easier. For instance, two years ago the league added games to the opening round. The NBA's playoffs already last two months. The NBA doesn't want games overlapping, so they pushed back tip-off times. As a result, games often don't end until well after midnight in the participating team's home market. But Neal Pilson, John Lombardo and the league itself say that a well-played, seven-game final series will increase ratings, and the pre-Memorial Day ratings slide will soon be forgotten. So the NBA season has come to look just like a single NBA game. It doesn't get interesting until late in the fourth quarter. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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