NBA ratings have been on a steady downturn. Not coincidentally, the first significant drop in finals ratings happened when ABC took over from NBC. Just to illustrate, in the 12 years that NBC had the NBA Finals, the ratings for the Finals were in double figures EVERY YEAR. Cannot give all the credit to MJ, the six years he did not appear in the finals, they stayed in the double figures. In the four years that the Finals have been on ABC, the Finals ratings have broken double-figures once - LA v. Detroit got an 11.5 (comparable to the San Antonio/NY series ratings).
So - why?
My theory is that viewers don’t care about the teams in the playoffs/finals. This is not the teams fault - its ABC’s fault. See, the Spurs/Cavs are no more boring than Houston/Orlando was when they got an 13 rating in the Finals. Game 1 of that series was more exciting, but it was still a sweep and an anti-climactic series between two medium sized market teams. The difference is that in the 90’s the fans cared.
In order to get fans to care, ABC has to use the nationally broadcast games as ads to market the playoffs and the finals. If these games were viewed in that manner - as an ad, a means to an end - and not as another Sunday afternoon program, then ABC could use the entire NBA season, like a regular television season, that builds and builds into a climactic season finale.
How do we do this?
Well, take for example “LOST”. There are main characters in LOST. Why are these the main characters? A bunch of people were on the plane. They all have back-stories and lives. They all get into a variety of adventures and misadventures on the island. We only see about seven of them on a weekly basis. It is no coincidence that those same seven people are also the key players in the events that unfold in the “dramatic” season finale. The writers really work backwards. They know how they want the season to end. Since they want the audience to care, they tell us as much about the characters involved in the ending during the season, so we will care about them in the finale. The Aussie Girl with the baby had major screen time in season one, because the season ended with her baby’s kidnapping. She had far less screen-time in subsequent seasons because she had nothing to do in the finale. Is the plot-line of raising a newborn on a island interesting material for a series? You bet. But, since fans didn’t have to care about her for the fans to be into the latter season finales, the writers ignored her.
The same principle applies when programming the Sunday games. The ABC people MUST program around the teams that will likely be in the “season finale”. Impossible to predict? Sure…but we all sorta know that SA will play in some big games, Phx will be in some big games, Dall will be there, Det will be there, Chi will be there, Miami and Cle will be there.
If ABC wants us to care when the playoffs come around, they have to show us these teams. Let us watch them on Sundays. If the games are good, we will be impressed and we will tune in to watch them again. Halftime pieces on their players - like the LOST back-stories - will also aid in getting us to care about the teams. Vest an interest.
Flexibility in schedule would be nice as well. If Duncan goes down, no one wants to see a 20 win SA team.
Makes sense so far, right? Isn’t ABC already doing this? In short — no.
As a first matter, aside from the Christmas game, NBA games do not air on ABC until January 25th. That is well more than half-way through the season. This would be fine if starting January 25th they really packed it in. Triple-headers, every Sunday, through May, topped off with the playoffs. But they do not. In fact, of the 11 days that ABC actually airs Sunday games, 5 days only have 1 game on the ABC schedule. If ABC wants us to care enough to watch the Finals - its gotta show us the product.
As a second matter, ABC is not showing us teams likely to be there in the “big games”. Look at the schedule:
Tuesday, Dec. 25
Miami at Cleveland, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)
Phoenix at L.A. Lakers, 5 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, Jan. 27
Phoenix at Chicago, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Cleveland at L.A. Lakers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, Feb. 3
Dallas at Detroit, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, Feb. 10
Denver at Cleveland, 1 p.m. (ABC)
L.A. Lakers at Miami, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, Feb. 24
Detroit at Phoenix, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, March 2
Chicago at Cleveland, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Dallas at L.A. Lakers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, March 9
San Antonio at Phoenix, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, March 16
Dallas at Miami, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
L.A. Lakers at Houston, 7 p.m. (NBATV)
Sunday, March 23
San Antonio at Dallas, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, March 30
Houston at San Antonio, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, April 6
Detroit at Miami, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Dallas at Phoenix, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Sunday, April 13
Miami at Cleveland, 1 p.m. (ABC)
San Antonio at L.A. Lakers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
We have six Laker games on the schedule. The team hasn’t been out of the first round in three years. Why? For the slight bump Kobe will give ABC on that Sunday. It doesn’t add to the build for the Finals. I like five Phoenix games, but only four San Antonio games. Denver and Houston - when have either of these teams been out of the first round? - combine for three games, but WC Finalist Utah gets none. We don’t get a Golden State v. Dallas re-match? No Celtics games?
As a result, when the Finals are Dallas v. Chicago, and no one watches, its not because Dallas/Chicago is boring - they aren’t - its because they were not on television. Bill Walton never extolled their virtues for the fans to hear on national television.
It’d be like if in the movie Major League, Tomlinson hit the big home run to win the game rather than the Tom Berenger bunt. Since the writers knew that Berenger was going to get the winning RBI, we were told his story. We had to be told Berenger’s story because we had to care about him to enjoy the finale. Tomlinson was always going to miss that that homer by a few inches - so working backwards, we could ignore him through the movie. No reason to tell us his story, though I am sure it was compelling. (think about the perfect structure of Major League, we ONLY follow the stories of the starting pitcher, winning pitcher, and the players responsible for every run and every RBI in the big game).
My recommendation - the two teams in the prior year’s Finals get at least 4 nationally televised games, including the re-match. Any team in the prior year’s Conference Finals gets at least 3 nationally televised games, including the re-match. Any team in the second round gets at least 2 nationally televised games, including the re-match. Then you can pick some teams that fought out a good first round to televise the re-match. Dall-GS come to mind. I think the #1 pick in the draft should get a national game - maybe when he faces the #2 pick. The reigning MVP gets a nationally televised game…and some schedule flexibility if a team is just hotter than expected and earns some screen-time.
This way we are watching quality team, and reinforcing some of the caring produced by the playoffs in the prior year.