Let's see if we've got this straight. NBA basketball, as played by the Eastern Conference champions, the New York Knicks, is called "butt-ugly" and "thuggish" by USA Today, while the erstwhile black sheep of professional team sports, the National Hockey League, appears in the "Styles of the Times" section of The New York Times, where it is described as "hip," "sexy" and "cutting edge."
The Los Angeles Times, citing a 30% drop in prime-time television ratings during the conference finals, denounces the NBA playoffs as "a game of mud wrestling" and host to "the occasional near riot," while the trade magazine Sports Licensing International gushes that "the convergence of an exciting sport, a new executive team at the NHL itself and a renewed marketing emphasis at NHL Enterprises has made hockey the place to be."
Basketball, thuggish? Hockey, the place to be? Talk about your role reversals. When former NBA executive Gary Bettman took over as commissioner of the NHL last year, everyone predicted hockey would assume the NBA look: hip music in the stadiums; an influx of young, energetic marketing whizzes in the league offices; zippy new promotions. What no one foresaw, however, was the simultaneous and inexplicable NHL-ing of the NBA: on-court brawls spreading into the stands; a sudden and embarrassing franchise shift; bizarre, pugnacious behavior by out-of-control owners; outrageous refereeing gaffes; and spin-doctoring denials from the league.
"Attendance was up, TNT had record viewership during the regular season, and the NBA Finals will be seen live in 117 countries," says commissioner David Stern, bristling at the suggestion that the bloom is off his league's rose. "The business of basketball is doing great. This was the year the naysayers said the NBA without Michael Jordan was going to fall off the face of the earth."
No one is suggesting that the popularity of the NBA is in free fall. During the regular season TV ratings were virtually unchanged from 1992-93. Celebrities—Alec-Baldwin, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray—still stud the stands. Two expansion franchises, in Toronto and Vancouver, were admitted into the league after agreeing to pay record-breaking entry fees of $125 million each. And the estimated $300 million in retail sales that NBA Properties generated overseas showed that, internationally, there is life after Michael. But since the playoffs began, what has taken the plunge is the NBA's image as the rising star of pro sports.
What passes for Showtime! these days is the snarling, elbow-throwing New York Knicks—egged on by that yapping court-side terrier, Spike (Put a Muzzle on It) Lee—muscling home 70 to 85 points a night against the Jordan-less Chicago Bulls, the low-profile Indiana Pacers and the charisma-less Houston Rockets. It was enough to make hard-court fans pine for the return of Bill Laimbeer, not to mention Magic, Larry, Michael, Isiah and Dr. J, one or more of whom, until this spring, had been in the Finals every year since 1980. "The Knicks' style of play is like Ohio State football," admits NBA vice president Brian McIntyre. "Three yards and a cloud of dust. It doesn't do much for the average fan."
Actually it encourages the average fan to change channels, if he hasn't done so already. Even with the inclusion of a team from New York—the nation's largest market, at 6.68 million TV homes—NBC's ratings for the first game of the Finals fell 35%, to 12.6, from a year ago, when Chicago faced the Phoenix Suns. Imagine what they would have been had the Pacers, with their market of only 850,000 TV homes, made it to the league's showcase event. "We expected our ratings to drop," says McIntyre. "Last year's average rating was the highest ever, 17.9. It was the third straight year the Bulls and Michael Jordan were in the Finals, people knew them, and they were playing against Charles Barkley. We had a lot of dynamics in our favor."
Those were dynamics that the NBA cannot expect to see repeated anytime soon, unless Jordan comes out of retirement. Barkley, now the league's most charismatic player, is nearing the end of his career. And few of the emerging stars—Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Chris Webber—have proved themselves to be either: a) capable of sinking a jump shot, a skill that has diminished in the NBA, or b) championship timber. Chicago's Scottie Pippen, one marquee name who does have three rings, will probably never live down his petulant refusal to play the final, critical 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks, an incident that was just one of many lowlights the NBA has been exporting to 117 countries during these playoffs. A sampling of others:
•Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, during Game 5 of his team's conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, duking it out in the stands with a Denver fan.
•The Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat engaging in a bench-clearing brawl during 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
•The Derek Harper-Jo Jo English donnybrook in Game 3 of the Knick-Bull series spilling, before Stern's horrified eves, into the stands.
•Utah's clock operator allowing nine crucial seconds to tick off before starting the clock in the final moments of Game 4 of the Jazz-Rocket Western finals.
•The Pacers losing to the Hawks while scoring a record (low) 69 points.
•The Knicks losing to the Pacers while scoring a record (lower) 68 points.
•Referee Hue Hollins making a phantom, game-deciding foul call against Pippen in the final seconds of Chicago's Game 5 loss to New York.
•Referee Mike Mathis overreacting with a tension-killing flagrant-foul call on Indiana's Reggie Miller in the final seconds of Game 7 of the Knick-Pacer series.
•Spike Lee taunting Pippen and Miller.
•Miller taunting Spike Lee.
It wasn't long ago that the NBA could bill itself as good, clean family fun. Remember the old Rodney Dangerfield joke about going to the fights and seeing a hockey game break out? The new one is about the guy who goes to a garbagemen's convention and sees an NBA game break out. Trash talking, once a relatively innocuous part of the sport, has become a serious concern. "We need to address the taunting," says NBA vice president of operations Rod Thorn. "It's gotten to the point that the fan in the top row can see it. We have to call more technical fouls and throw more guys out of the game."
As for the low-scoring games—point totals were down nearly 5% in both the regular season and the playoffs compared with '92-93—there is some question whether they're the result of tight defense or abysmal shooting symptomatic of what USA Today columnist Bryan Burwell calls "an entire generation of slammin', jammin', no-jump-shooting, fundamentally unsound kids who have bought into the NBA's and Madison Avenue's shallow MTV-generated marketing of the game."
Ouch. "There's a real ebb and flow here," says Thorn, who, as head of the NBA's competition committee, is considering such options as widening the free throw lane or making it trapezoidal, and moving the three-point are closer to entourage outside shooting. Thorn adds, "Five or six years ago they were saying here was no defense in the NBA. Maybe ill we have to do is have the referees call he games closer. It's becoming harder to jet open because players are impeding progress away from the ball."
"At the end of the year we'll take inventory," says Stern. "Low scoring is certainly a subject for discussion. And any violence is too much violence." There are other concerns that Stern needs to address. One is the possibility of a strike before next season by the players, who are seeking to rid themselves of the salary cap. Another is the prospective sale of the Minnesota Timberwolves to a group from New Orleans that includes boxing promoter Bob Arum. Everyone knows that the Superdome, where the Timberwolves ire likely to play, is a lousy site for basketball. "It wouldn't be wise for me to comment further on that," says Stern when asked about the sale, which must still be approved by the league. "And to put the possibility of a strike into historical perspective, in '83 the players said they'd never approve a salary cap. They threatened litigation. They threatened to strike. In '88, the same thing. We've had some very loud confrontations with our players before, and we managed to settle them without work stoppages."
Still, the perception remains that the NBA, which had appeared to be on such smooth ground, is stumbling. Stern now uses words like "mature" when discussing the NBA, whereas three or four years ago the buzzwords were "hot," "now" and "happening." Today if you want to hear those buzzwords, better head over to the NHL, where the landscape appears to be one of endless possibility.
Disenchanted NBA fans who have channel-surfed to ESPN may just have rediscovered hockey. The production of the telecasts, with innovations like the goal-cam inside the net, has been superb, the games thrilling and competitive, and the results refreshingly unpredictable. Series after series featured magnificent goal-tending, last-second scoring and overtime after overtime after overtime—18 games had gone into OT through last Saturday's Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and a record-tying six had gone into multiple overtimes.
The gritty Vancouver Canucks, down three games to one to the favored Calgary Flames in their opening round, won three straight in overtime to advance. The upstart San Jose Sharks, led by the scintillating goaltending of Arturs Irbe, beat the potent Red Wings in Game 7 in Detroit. The New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers played an epic conference-championship series, with Games 5, 6 and 7 building to a stunning finale in which the Devils, their goalie pulled, tied the deciding game with just 7.7 seconds left. The seemingly accursed Rangers finally prevailed in double OT.
Throughout, the play was fast and hard hitting but seldom tinged with the viciousness that has plagued the NHL in the past. There were the occasional high-sticking infractions that led to players being thrown out of games, as happened to Vancouver's Pavel Bure in Game 3 of the finals, but few acts of recognizable malice.
Of course, it didn't hurt the league that the Rangers, in their bid to break the Curse of 1940, became one of the top sports stories of the year. Or that New York's captain, Mark Messier, whose face looks like it was carved from the side of a mountain, did a decidedly unhockey-like thing by guaranteeing a win in Game 6 over the Devils and then backed up his boast, Joe Namath-style, with a hat trick. Or that the Canucks were led by Bure, the aptly nicknamed Russian Rocket, who, even while wearing a helmet and visor, has become a matinee idol.
"Honest, genuine and sexy—that's what I keep hearing about our players," says Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's vice president of corporate communications. "This game has been underexposed, and that makes it fresh. From a marketing point of view, we have to do a better job with our athletes. Mark Messier was fabulous when he made his prediction, and we'd like to get more of the players to show their charisma. To do a little chest-thumping. But all that will come."
Gone is the image of the NHL player as a toothless face-buster. Fighting in the playoffs, this year and last, has been practically nonexistent (though it remained a problem during the regular season). Brawling was almost entirely eliminated. Even the fans' image has changed: Pre-Bettman, when the NHL was the boil on the pro sports boom of the 1970s and '80s, hockey's spectators looked like the spillover from Wrestlemania. This year elegant couples like John F. Kennedy Jr. and Daryl Hannah (also Knick attendees) and Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal were spotted at NHL games. Big Apple mayor Rudy Giuliani has confessed to having a hockey goal set up in the backyard of Gracie Mansion, the mayoral digs, for his eight-year-old son, Andrew.
But the real news was not that the Rangers generated tremendous excitement in New York, long a great hockey town. No, it was that hockey began making strides in the Sun Belt. It started last year when Wayne Gretzky led the Los Angeles Kings into the Stanley Cup finals. Then, for once, the NHL did expansion the right way, allowing the Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to field competitive teams in their first season. Both sold out nearly half their games. The Sharks were the surprise team of this season's playoff's and, as the most improved team in the history of hockey from one year to the next, won the hearts of the Bay Area. And the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning averaged more than 21,000 fans a game. "We're not just a cold-weather sport," says Bettman. "We're getting a national footprint."
The NHL has also been a beneficiary of the in-line skating boom, which has brought an appreciation of hockey skills to warm-weather locales that previously had limited exposure to the game. Street hockey, played both in sneakers and on in-line skates, is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. In San Jose the NHL helped set up a street-hockey program that now involves 50,000 kids, and it is making plans to follow that model in as many as 14 more cities.
On the marketing front NHL-licensed merchandise will exceed a billion dollars in retail sales this year, a 600% increase over the last five years. True, that figure is well below the $2.5 billion in U.S. retail sales generated by the NBA, whose gross licensing income has increased 333% over the same period. But percentagewise, no major league sport has seen its licensing income grow as fast as hockey's has. The Mighty Ducks, fueled by the Disney magic, had the top-selling logo in team sports this year, passing the NFL's L.A. Raiders and the NBA's Bulls. And hockey jerseys, with their baggy look and bright colors, have become the stuff of high fashion. "We've had the football jersey, the baseball jersey, basketball trends," designer Tommy Hilfiger told The New York Times. "Hockey [jerseys have]...a great shape, very oversized, with neat emblems and great colors. And it's cool because hockey is kind of a rough sport."
Hockey is also the rage of the videogame market. The NHL game, created by Electronic Arts, has sold more than a million copies at $60 in each of the past two years, almost twice what the company's corresponding NBA game has sold, and comparable to the most popular basketball game on the market, Sega's NBA Jam. "It's big in England. It's huge on campuses," says Don Transeth, vice president of spoils marketing for Electronic Arts. "And a lot of these people are learning hockey through the video game."
That statement, as self-serving as it may sound, was recently confirmed by a 17-year-old friend of ours, a basketball player, who said he was following the hockey playoffs because he'd been hooked by the NHL '94 video game. "If the boys in the junior class were to make a list of their favorite things," he said, "first would be sophomore girls. Second would be NHL '94. Everyone plays it." Where, he was asked, did the girls in his junior class rank? "Way down. Not even top 10."
As yet ESPN's ratings do not reflect this surge in hockey interest. With the Rangers' games contractually not available on ESPN in the New York market (the MSG Network carries the games there), ESPN has averaged a 1.8 rating, minuscule by NBA standards. "Nobody should read too much into the ratings," says Bettman. "We were off TV so many years, we're in the rebuilding process. If we were still getting those numbers in five years, I'd be disappointed." The NHL also had six games televised this season on an over-the-air network, ABC, where it drew a lowly 1.7 average rating.
The league's horizon is not bereft of its clouds. It, too, must negotiate a contract with its players union, which has been without one for more than a year. Hockey has also had to deal with the ire caused by a controversial franchise shift, from Minnesota to Dallas. There have been problems with ownership, most notoriously in L.A., where profligate Bruce McNall was forced to relinquish control of the Kings. And flagging attendance has plagued both the New York Islanders and the Hartford Whalers. But even Stern, Bettman's former NBA boss, is impressed with what's going on over at the NHL. "Hockey is doing well and, in percentage of its growth, will continue to do well," Stern says. "They should do well. They have a very good blueprint to follow."
A blueprint that the NBA, by all appearances, had better take back to the drawing board.