OKLAHOMA CITY -- The numbers continue to amaze. On Tuesday the NBA Finals generated ABC's largest audience for an opening game -- a 9.9 rating and 16.2 million viewers -- and the totals promise to remain high or climb even higher for Game 2 here Thursday night. It is the opposite of what the NBA feared last winter, when games were being canceled and the owners were fighting publicly with the players.
"We were stunned," commissioner David Stern said of the popular response to his league in the wake of so much negative publicity.
TV ratings have been up throughout this troubled season. Or have they gone up because the season was troubled?
For decades the major leagues of football, baseball and basketball feared that a betting scandal would ruin the credibility of their competition. Then the NBA had its trouble with former referee Tim Donaghy, and guess what the fallout turned out to be? Negligible. Forgettable. It is amazing to think how little impact Donaghy, who admitted to betting on games he officiated, has had on the NBA's business.
Two summers ago LeBron James made a jerk of himself on live TV and again the next day during a pre-championship celebration in Miami, where he had the gall to refer to his new organization as "family" the day after he had run out on his hometown fans in northern Ohio. A decade of investment in his good name had been undone within 24 hours. The fans' favorite had turned into a villain, which was another longstanding fear for a league that depends on the popularity of its stars.
We all know what became of that incident. The ratings went up last year, and they kept rising this year. When James was glorified as a young star who led his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, the ratings were far lower than they are five years later, now that he is universally vilified as the opponent to the beloved Kevin Durant.
Is there no such thing as bad publicity? Stern appeared to answer the question during his annual Finals news conference Tuesday when he was asked about persistent criticism of NBA referees throughout this postseason.
"Well, I think that there is going to be a lot of attention brought to everything about our game," he said to a roomful of reporters. "It's just the way we are now. With social media, with the commentary that's going around, with 300 million followers and friends and likes and you name it, there's always a reason for a dialogue, usually occasioned by somebody in this room. Because otherwise you can't tweet and say, 'I've got nothing to tweet about.'
"So at least for a weekend you can tweet about the calls and the [Manny Pacquiao] fight in Las Vegas or the NHL's boarding penalty, but ... we'll be front and center. And that's our lot, and that's good. Because you're here, you're talking about us, you're writing about us."
When Stern was accused of "vetoing" the potential trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers in December, he was charged with damaging the greater interests of the league. (Stern has said that the trade had not been finalized because he, as acting owner of the Hornets, had to approve any major deal before it could be enacted, and he insisted it was never approved by him.) Arguments will be made on both sides of that accusation, and Stern sees merit in the controversy. Because controversy means business. The truth of the entire Paul fiasco is that it generated interest at a time when the NBA needed to pull attention away from the lockout.
This is not to introduce another convoluted conspiracy theory -- as if Stern created the mess because he needed to drum up publicity. Whether or not you believe he vetoed an existing agreement, the situation was handled badly. And yet the bottom-line result was that it provided an unintended benefit that was good for the short term, like a mini version of "The Decision" that inspired or incited fans to connect to the NBA.
"That was a very tough situation," Stern said of the criticism he endured. "But then you combine that and the games opening on Christmas Day, and it was like the ignition of a rocket."
The logical assumption was that the lockout would dig a hole for the NBA among its fans, who would be turned off by the selfishness of the players and owners, and that the audience would therefore take its business elsewhere. But the opposite happened instead. It was as if the momentum picked up seamlessly from where it left off last June.
"Absolutely, it exceeded the expectations I had," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said of the ratings and other signs of growing fan support. He credited the NBA's marketing partners, TV networks and other entities that probably had something to do with this immediate burst of success.
The truth is that these gains are part of a larger dynamic that operates beyond the top-down control of the NBA. Consider that the NBA was able to grow in popularity this season even as the quality of play deteriorated noticeably. Stern dare not protest these facts: There was practically no training camp; many players began the season out of shape; teams held minimal practices or canceled them altogether in pursuit of off-day rest; star players were injured to upset the balance of power; and coaches complained across the board that they never knew what kind of performance they would receive from one night to the next. Put it altogether and that inconsistency -- that unpredictability -- might have helped the NBA. The mystery of expectations helped make the league more interesting and topical.
Stern appears to be on board with this new trend, because he surely cannot fight it. Last month he was accused (without evidence) of fixing the lottery on behalf of the Hornets, who are about to be sold by the NBA to Tom Benson of New Orleans. When radio host Jim Rome asked Stern on Wednesday about the lingering suggestion that he had rigged the lottery in order to reward Benson with the rights to Kentucky big man Anthony Davis, Stern could have responded in one of two ways. He could have tried to fend off the question with laughter in order to change the subject as quickly as possible, and maybe that's how he would have handled it a decade or two ago. Instead, he chose to inflame the discussion.
"Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Stern answered, and back and forth they went for several minutes.
It was all over the blogs and YouTube and Twitter and people were talking about it, like the silly news coverage of spats between talent judges or rich housewives on reality TV. Stern may not like the accusation, but like so many incidents in recent years, that doesn't mean he can't find a way to turn a bad story into an afternoon of profit.