USA Today recently dubbed the Miami Heat the team America already loves to hate. But one of the undeniable truisms of sports television is this: Hate sells.
With a super-team in Miami fronted by the league's most polarizing figure in LeBron James, the league's television partners are thrilled for the upcoming season, which begins Tuesday night. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are featured on most nights, and the interest in the Heat could result in another epic playoff rating for broadcasters. Last season's Finals-clinching, Game 7 win by the Lakers over the Celtics was seen by 28.2 million viewers, the most-watched NBA game since Michael Jordan won his sixth and final championship in 1998.
Traditionally, teams with a rooting interest against them (the Yankees, Cowboys, Duke basketball) draw big numbers.
"TNT and ESPN will probably have the highest ratings they have ever had in the months of the November and December," said TNT play-by-play announcer Marv Albert, who lives part-time in Miami and called the Heat's first preseason game. "Usually, you have a lot of competition during those months, but Miami will be appointment television every night. Then there's Boston, Orlando, the Lakers and Oklahoma City. LeBron had every right to move, but the way it was done was misguided. But I think you always need teams like that. People will be interested in the Heat, even if they are rooting against them."
While the focus will be on the those on the court, we're here to offer the scouting report on those who will bring you the games. Here's SI.com's NBA broadcasting guide to the 2010-11 season:
ESPN will air 90 games this season, including 15 exclusive broadcasts on ABC (all ESPN telecasts also available via ESPN3.com). ESPN Radio will broadcast 26 games, while ESPN Deportes (ESPN's Spanish-language U.S. sports network) will televise 22 games. The Lakers (16), Heat (15), Celtics (13) and Magic (13) have the most appearances. ESPN will air the Western Conference finals and ABC will broadcast the NBA Finals.
Stuart Scott (host), Hannah Storm (host), Jon Barry (analyst), Chris Mullin (analyst), Jalen Rose (analyst), Mike Wilbon (analyst), Magic Johnson (analyst), J.A. Adande (reporter), Chris Broussard (reporter), Ric Bucher (reporter) and Marc Stein (reporter).
1. Mike Breen (play-by-play), Mark Jackson (analyst), Jeff Van Gundy (analyst), Doris Burke (reporter).2. Dan Shulman (play-by-play), Hubie Brown (analyst), Lisa Salters (reporter).
Mike Tirico, Terry Gannon, Mark Jones and Dave Pasch will also call games during the year. Tim Legler will serve as an analyst on select broadcasts.
In the ever-changing world that is ESPN's studio show -- who can forget former classics such as Kevin Frazier, Tim Hardaway, Stephen A. Smith and Fred Hickman? -- Storm joins the group (she hosted the Finals studio show last year) and will share hosting responsibilities with Scott. The SportsCenter anchor has previous hosting experience -- she hosted NBC's NBA studio coverage from 1997-2002 -- but has not had a full-time gig in the league for years.
Breen, Jackson and Van Gundy form the top three-man booth in any sport, a fun and exceptionally enjoyable listen. We've repeatedly praised Shulman and Brown for professionalism and preparedness. For those who like basketball on the radio, Jim Durham and Jack Ramsay are fantastic. This column would urge any ESPN executive to use the NBA game broadcasting group as a template for what should be the goal across the network: a group of professional and entertaining men and women who don't have to go Chris Berman on the audience in order to get attention.
WHAT WE'D CHANGE
Obviously, you can't duplicate Charles Barkley and the chemistry of TNT's studio show, but ESPN's studio show has improved over the years. Barry and Rose come prepared and speak their mind. Wilbon offers thoughtfulness and smarts, though he's much more genuflecting of the league in this forum than PTI. Scott and Storm could learn from TNT's Ernie Johnson, who understands that an ego-free host whose first priority is setting up analysts is rewarded with viewer and critic loyalty.
Something to watch will be whether ESPN can be critical of LeBron, the network's business partner for The Decision. ESPN's Heat Index has been criticized in some circles, but not here. The franchise warrants total immersion. Just don't sugarcoat the coverage.
"Our guys call it the way they see it," ESPN senior VP and executive producer Mark Gross said. "That's what they are being paid to do. If they want to be critical of LeBron James, or if they want to be critical of Kobe Bryant, they will be critical of them. There is nothing taking place behind the scenes. We want our guys serving NBA fans and telling it like they see it."
FIVE MUST-SEE GAMES
Dec. 25, Heat at Lakers 5 p.m., ABCJan. 30, 2011, Celtics at Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABCJan. 30, 2011, Thunder at Heat 1 p.m., ABCFeb. 27, 2011, Lakers at Thunder, 2:30 p.m, ABCApril 10, 2011, Celtics at Heat, 3:30 p.m., ABC
WHY VIEWERS SHOULD OPT FOR ITS COVERAGE
"I think we offer really smart, analytical, inside X's-and-O's information that you can't get anywhere else. I also think we offer features that you cannot get anywhere else. The other thing we offer is that our coverage is not just in a pregame show; it's across all of our shows and all of our platforms. We cover the NBA 12 months out of the year on SportsCenter, ESPNews and ESPN Radio. ... Our goal is to make the viewer smarter about the game that's being played, or, in SportsCenter's case, the game that was just played."-- Mark Gross
OBLIGATORY MIAMI HEAT COMMENT
"Don't get me wrong: The Decision was a debacle, a disaster, the execution was 100 percent off. If you're [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert or a Cleveland fan, you have every right to be upset. Your favorite son let you down. But it takes a real big man in life to do what LeBron's doing. He's going from being The Man to playing second fiddle [to Wade], from Michael Jordan to Scottie Pippen, from Batman to Robin."-- Studio analyst Jalen Rose, to USA Today
SI.com: Is ESPN's Heat coverage overkill?
Jeff Van Gundy: I'm not trying to be a company guy here, but I think ESPN takes a lot of shots by the sports consumer -- and my brother [Magic coach Stan Van Gundy] being one of them. But at the same time, I think they put out what sells and what people want to watch.
SI.com: Is Kevin Durant the best player in the world?
Mark Jackson: I don't think it's his time to say he's the best player in the world. When you talk about that, Kobe, LeBron and Dwyane Wade are the top three players in basketball. But Kevin Durant has certainly put himself in the discussion and certainly can win the MVP.
SI.com: Is your network attempting to get a one-on-one with LeBron?
Mark Gross: We are trying hard and we have different reporters that we would be comfortable doing that interview, whether that is Rachel Nichols or Chris Broussard or any of our reporters covering the Heat. It's No. 1 on our list. We have just not been able to make it happen, but I am optimistic it will happen.
TNT will air 52 games in prime time, with 44 being part of its exclusive doubleheader on Thursday night. The network will feature 10 appearances each by the Celtics and Heat and nine by the Lakers, Nuggets and Magic. It will also air All-Star weekend, including the All-Star Game on Sunday, Feb. 20, from Los Angeles. As part of a rotation with ESPN, TNT has the Eastern Conference finals this year. (Editor's note: Turner Sports is in partnership with SI.com and runs the site's business operations.)PREGAME
Ernie Johnson (host), Charles Barkley (analyst), Kenny Smith (analyst). Chris Webber (analyst) and Kevin McHale (analyst) will occasionally sit in as guest analysts. When Johnson, Barkley and Smith go on the road, Matt Winer (host), McHale and Webber will handle Inside the NBA from the Atlanta studio.
1. Marv Albert (play-by-play), Steve Kerr (analyst), Craig Sager (reporter)2. Kevin Harlan (play-by-play), Reggie Miller (analyst) and David Aldridge (reporter) or Cheryl Miller (reporter)
Mike Fratello (analyst), Webber and McHale will also appear as analysts throughout the season.
Plenty. Kerr, who worked for TNT from 2003 to 2007, joins Albert to make up a terrific top team. The former Suns GM signed a four-year deal, so he'll be around for some time. The studio show, which normally travels during the conference finals, will make trips during the regular season, including opening night for Heat-Celtics in Boston Heat-Cavs in Cleveland on Dec. 2 in what could be one of the most memorable nights this season. Turner will have a new studio for the first time in five years, as well as new graphics and new music.
The pregame show remains the best in its class, a freewheeling, impromptu conversation that travels often into fascinating and surreal territory. Barkley remains an impossible act to copy, a sports celebrity who lives unapologetically on the air. He can be crude and thoughtful, often in the same sentence.
WHAT WE'D CHANGE
TNT does basketball very well, but there's always room for improvement. The network would be wise to employ a former ref for part-time duty when the officiating becomes newsworthy, especially given the NBA's new crackdown on player complaints.
FIVE MUST-SEE GAMES
Nov. 11, Celtics at Heat, 8 p.m.Dec. 2, Cavaliers at Heat, 8 p.m.Jan. 17, 2011, Thunder at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.Feb. 10, 2011, Lakers at Celtics, 8 p.m.March 10, 2011, Heat at Lakers, 8 p.m.
WHY VIEWERS SHOULD OPT FOR ITS COVERAGE
"We don't have a lot of rules. We let our guys be who they are and let their expertise come out on its own. We let the game on the floor be the story and our announcers have never wanted or intended to be the story. I'm not insinuating that anyone else's announcers do, but we let the game take care of itself. We have lots of championships among all of our announcers, so I think our depth and our ability to let the game happen on its own is something that sets us apart."-- Turner Sports executive producer Jeff Behnke
OBLIGATORY HEAT COMMENT
"The Decision put the attention on LeBron that he was bigger than the sport, and I think that's what people did not like. There is no one on the fence right now with LeBron James. You either like him or you hate him." -- Kenny Smith
SI.com: Are you worried the Heat will top the 72-win record set by your Bulls team?
Steve Kerr: Not really. I've been asked this many times and I've mentioned I don't want to be Mercury Morris and have a champagne celebration when they lose their 11th game. This is just a difficult record to break and those circumstances in '95-96 were really unique because Michael [Jordan] came back from baseball and was like a man on a mission. There were 10 or 15 games that year that we had no business winning and he just decided we would win. This year you are already seeing injuries with Mike Miller and with Wade in the preseason. They will win a ton of games, but I don't think 72 wins is realistic.
SI.com: Is TNT interested in a one-on-one with LeBron James?
Jeff Behnke: We would definitely like that. When and where and who would do that interview, we have not locked in on that yet.
SI.com: How has working in a front office made you a better broadcaster?
Kerr: I have a totally different perspective on why people make decisions. Now I have a much better perspective on why people do what they do from a big-picture standpoint. Even though its sounds simplistic, once you have been in the [GM] chair and you have your owner telling you something or, say, season-ticket holders not buying tickets, you understand how different circumstances dictate different decisions.
SI.com: What current player has star potential as a broadcaster?
Turner Sports president David Levy: I don't know whether it's as a game analyst or studio analyst, but Steve Nash could really be an great asset.
The league-owned network (now in 53 million homes) will air more than 200 live games this season.The Heat are scheduled to make four appearances and the Lakers are listed twice, but with NBA TV's Fan Night -- each week fans vote on NBA.com for the matchup they want to see televised nationally the following Tuesday -- expect the Heat and Lakers to be on NBA TV nine times. The Bulls and Thunder are scheduled nine times, followed by the Celtics, Mavericks and Rockets with eight apiece.
The network has plenty of programming, some of it very good, and some of it hosted by Ahmad Rashad. The hiring of former ESPN host Matt Winer last January was an excellent move. While we appreciate Rick Kamla's enthusiasm for the league, there is a fine line between passion and a screaming, over-the-top, shtick-filled highlight reader who makes us want to change the dial.
(NBA TV is part of NBA Digital, the NBA's digital assets jointly managed by the NBA and Turner Sports.)
Anchors: Ernie Johnson, Matt Winer, Ahmad Rashad, Rick Kamla, Marc Fein, Kyle Montgomery
Analysts: Kevin McHale, Chris Webber, Steve Smith, Rick Fox, Dennis Scott, Brent Barry. David Aldridge serves as studio and game analyst and reporter.
TNT talent: Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Mike Fratello, Craig Sager.
FIVE MUST-SEE GAMES
Nov. 1, Trail Blazers at Bulls 8 p.m.Nov. 7, Celtics at Thunder 7 p.m.Dec. 22, Bulls at Wizards 7 p.m.Jan. 15, 2011, Heat at Bulls 8 p.m.March 19, 2011, Nuggets at Heat 7:30 p.m.
OBLIGATORY HEAT COMMENT
"I'm never mentioning [LeBron] and [Michael] Jordan in the same sentence ever again. There is no more discussion; Kobe is the last heir to Jordan. I think LeBron is starting a new era of basketball that is not led by a dominant 2-guard. [Backcourt combinations such as] Magic and Michael Cooper, Magic and Byron Scott, it's not that type of thing [with James and Wade]. I mean, who would be MVP if they both average 18 points?"-- Chris Webber
SI.com: What is next for the Cavaliers?
David Aldridge: "I don't see a way out or a viable plan B after you lose a guy like LeBron James. Maybe they can do a sign-and-trade and get four players. What do you build around? Whom do you build around? All of those guys were brought to that team because they were complementary pieces to LeBron. They are all good basketball players, but their best skill was how they played with LeBron or off LeBron, and now that they don't have that center and that hub, I don't see a way out."
SI.com: Is this new Heat team good or bad for the NBA?
Barkley: It's bad for the NBA. My concern is that we're becoming like pro baseball. If you are the Cleveland franchise, if you are the Toronto franchise and if Carmelo leaves Denver, well, that would be it for those franchises, and the same with Chris Paul in New Orleans. So we'll have four or five teams with no chance of being competitive or winning. Fans are not going to want to see that. ... I don't want the NBA to have six good teams and [nearly] 25 bad teams. That's not the way it should be. Cleveland did not win [a championship], but at least you could hang your hat on LeBron James. If you were in Toronto, you could at least hang your hat on Chris Bosh. In Denver, Carmelo. In New Orleans, Chris Paul.
SI.com: How good is Kevin Durant?
Barkley: One month ago, I told Kenny [Smith], "Kenny I have to apologize to you. I've always said I thought LeBron was the best player in the NBA, but watching that kid play, Kevin Durant is probably going to be the best player in the NBA the next two or three years." Durant is fantastic. Who guards that guy? You put a 6-10 guy on him, he will take him outside. You put a little guy on him, he will take him inside. That guy is going to be a beast. You just have to hope he misses.
SI.com: Explain your take on LeBron going to Miami?
Barkley: I never said LeBron was wrong. I said that press conference was silly and I used the word "punk," which was my mistake. What Magic, Michael and myself said was we would not have done it. We are not saying LeBron is wrong. From a competitive standpoint, I wanted to beat Michael Jordan. I got my chance and he beat me. I can live with that. Michael Jordan did not leave Chicago [in the prime of his career]. He got better and beat the Pistons.
SI.com: Why did the public perception of LeBron change so quickly?
Barkley: The only the criticism I have heard of LeBron James -- and myself included -- was that The Decision thing was ridiculous. Like I say, and I joke around, all white people and black people think that Decision thing was silly. That was torture. I want that hour back.
SI.com: What about the charity aspect to it?
Barkley: That was a nice try, but it's bull----. I'm saying it was bulls--- to do that thing for an hour.