Friday May 29th, 2009

On the night of his league's draft lottery, NBA commissioner David Stern engaged in a little ping-pong of his own with reporters. During a lively Q&A session with the press, Stern was asked about the importance of LeBron James making the NBA Finals. "You mean as opposed to Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant?" Stern said. "None. We have nothing but stars. We should be called NBS instead of NBA."

If one were being cheeky, one might suggest that the commish was spreading a little b.s. regarding his NBS. While Anthony and Howard have emerged during these playoffs, Bryant and James are clearly the NBA's leading actors. As veteran NBA writer Sam Smith pointed out in a recent column on Bulls.com, the league has been an ardent promoter for Dream Season: 23 & 24, a Nike-sponsored film starring James (No. 23) and Bryant (No. 24). The film (with behind-the-scenes footage and fawning narration from Justin Timberlake) sets these "supernovas" on a course for a historic collision. Even Magic center Dwight Howard recognized the marketing push for a Kobe-LeBron Finals. "I told y'all the other day that we find it really disrespectful that everybody seems to be pulling for LeBron and Kobe to get to the Finals," Howard wrote on his blog following Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. "Every time I look at TV, it seems like that's all anybody is talking about."

Television executives will tell you publicly that they root for volume (e.g., a seven-game series) when it comes to championships. Privately, they also root for the Lakers, Patriots and Yankees. Big television markets equal big ratings, as Fox Sports president Ed Goren explained. "One of the more honest comments I've heard through the years from a commissioner of a sport came from David Stern," Goren said. "Years ago he was asked who he was rooting for in the NBA Finals. His response? 'I'd love to see the Lakers against the Lakers.'"

That's one matchup we won't see when the NBA Finals begin on June 4. But will there be an effect on the NBA should James not make the championship round? LeBron's appearance in the NBA Finals does not automatically guarantee viewers. San Antonio's four-game sweep of Cleveland in the 2007 Finals drew a paltry 6.2 rating and averaged 9.3 million viewers, the lowest-rated and least watched series in NBA history. By contrast, Miami's six-game defeat of Dallas in '06 averaged an 8.5 rating and 12.9 million viewers. For all his star power, James does not yet impact basketball ratings the way Tiger Woods impacts golf. (According to the Nielsen Company, the average household rating for '07-08 golf tournaments that Tiger played in was 3.3; the same tournaments played without the injured Tiger in '08-09 averaged 1.7.)

Last year's Celtics-Lakers Finals (Boston is the nation's eighth-largest television market) drew a 9.3 rating and an average of 14.9 million viewers, the highest Finals ratings since '04. Those numbers are important because most of the ad rates for this year's Finals are based on last year's ratings, with a small percentage held for last-minute purchases. Networks can raise their ratings estimate on which they base the price of those ads. Last year ABC charged an estimated $400,000 for a 30-second ad for the Celtics-Lakers series; only a Lakers-Cavs matchup would produce similar numbers this year, according to media buyers, but even so, "As great as LeBron is, I don't think Cleveland has a ton of traction nationally," said one West Coast media buyer, who asked for anonymity since he deals with the networks.

Where James' loss would really be felt is in the Cleveland area. The nation's 17th-largest television market, with 1,533,710 television households, Cleveland does not rank among the NBA's 15 biggest markets, but this season the Cavs had the highest local regular-season TV ratings of any NBA team in more than a decade, according to Sports Business Daily. Cavs games saw a 116 percent increase from last year while leaguewide viewership across all regional sports networks increased by eight percent this season. An average of 134,000 Cleveland-area homes tuned in for each Cavs game, according to SBJ, second only to the Lakers' 250,000 average on Fox Sports West.

While the loss of James would reduce some buzz from the Finals, the worst-case scenario for the NBA would be if the Lakers failed to defeat the Nuggets. Los Angeles represents the No. 2 television market in the country, with an estimated 5,654,260 television households. A star of Bryant's magnitude in L.A. has proven to be a huge ratings bonanza in the '09 playoffs: ESPN's Game 4 telecast of the Western Conference Finals earned a 6.9 rating and 9,883,000 viewers, the most-viewed NBA game ever on cable, the most-viewed program this year on cable, and ESPN's most-viewed basketball game ever. (Playoff ratings on both TNT and ESPN are up double digits compared to '08). Bryant's No. 24 jersey was the top seller at the NBA Store in New York and on the league's merchandising site (James ranks No. 2) this season, and the Lakers topped the list of the NBA's most popular team merchandise for the sixth time in seven years.

The absence of James and Bryant in the Finals would also force some scrambling for their sponsors. The Coca-Cola-owned VitaminWater has inundated America (via Facebook and television ads) with its Kobe-vs.-LeBron "Great Debates," while Nike has run a campaign featuring dueling puppets of Bryant and James. (In the event that both LeBron and Kobe miss the Finals, CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell expects the folks at VitaminWater to turn to Howard and Chauncey Billups, also endorsers, for some sort of spot).

"Each of them [Kobe and LeBron] is already a global icon with dramatic reach," says David Carter, the executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "Although their sponsors will be disappointed to miss out on the extra coverage, sponsors should take comfort in the fact that they are both already international icons that can be marketed year-round."

The greatest impact of James missing the Finals might not be felt until '10. If an earlier-than-expected playoff exit influences his decision to test the free-agent waters, the value of the Cavaliers' franchise will take a significant hit. According to Rovell, one NBA insider claims the value of the team will plummet by at least $100 million should James leave Cleveland. No other star in Stern's NBS league has that kind of impact.

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