Will People Watch the Conference Finalses?

I think most NBA dorks got the match ups we wanted in both the Western Conference Finals and the Eastern Conference Finals.

Three weeks ago, nobody (well, nobody except me, the Denver Stiffs and the Nugg Doctors) was watching the Nuggets too closely, but it became overwhelmingly evident by, say, Game 2 of the Denver/Dallas series that the best match up to determine who the West is sending to the Finals would be the Lakers vs. the Nuggets. After the Lakers struggles, many people even think Denver will win this thing. (I’m not really one for predictions, but I’m not in that camp.) The Rockets were a decent story given their relatively Rudy-like frontline size and scrappy, Hoosier-like improbable run, but watching the Rockets vs. Denver really would have been an inferior match up.

In the East, I actually even had myself convinced that Celtics vs. Cavs could be okay, mostly given Paul Pierce vs. LeBron. But this isn’t 2008 and The Truth is clearly too beat up and too worn down to give us any more classics like last year’s Game 7 Bron/Truth shoot-out. That was pretty clear even in the Celtics/Bulls series, really, but the Magic’s flaws and the Celtics gritty ability to actually push Orlando to seven games probably gave Boston a renewed sheen that they really didn’t warrant.

So, instead, we get the better basketball match up in Cavs vs. Magic. I really think Cleveland might just sweep Orlando, too, but with Dwight being a force of nature in the paint and Hedo/Shard/JJ/Pietrus liable to hit a combined 15 threes in any game, I wouldn’t be too shocked to see them take one game down in Mickey Mouseville. Then again, who is guarding LeBron? Courtney Lee? Rashard? Hedo? Mikael Pietrus? Yeah, good luck with that.

But regardless of the probable beatdown, it is at least the best matchup we could ask for in the East. As far as finances and marqueeability are concerned, however, the League and the television stations airing the games would probably have much rather seen Cleveland vs. Boston and Los Angeles vs. Dallas.

A Sports Media Watch article illustrates why:

The NBA Conference Finals may feature the Lakers, LeBron and Superman, but it could be a long couple of weeks for the league’s television partners — particularly TNT. The Conference Finals feature teams from the #17 (Cleveland), #18 (Denver) and #19 (Orlando) markets, with only one team in the top ten (#2 — Los Angeles).

As the article notes, ESPN/ABC should do alright just on the strength of Kobe and the LA market alone. And with most people projecting the Nuggets and the Lakers to battle for at least six games, a competitive WCF should drum up plenty of national interest even if it the Denver market is less than ideal. (Then again, how many locals who normally wouldn’t pay much attention are going to have special rooting interest against the Lakers given Mamba’s legal troubles in Colorado a few years back?)

Orlando, then, seems to be the market that TNT really needs to worry about, especially since the national audience probably isn’t going to be overly excited by the time the Cavs fly down to Orlando up 2-0. Orlando/Boston Game 6, for instance, drew fewer local Orlando viewers than The Preakness Stakes, and Games 2 and 3 were both beat by the final round of PGA’s Players Championship.

LeBron should make a big difference though, right? Maybe not.

The battle of mid-sized markets may feature LeBron James, but there’s a little known secret in the NBA — LeBron does not move the needle nationally. Despite his talent and all the hype, James has always needed a high-profile, big-market opponent to draw viewers.

As someone who spends many of his January nights watching regular season games between the likes of the Clippers and the Kings or the Pacers and the Bucks, I personally don’t really care if anyone else is watching. Since MJ retired, the NBA has become a fringe sports league anyway and I understand that many of my friends have way less interest in the Association than NFL/NCAA football, Major League Baseball and even NCAA hoops. And that’s fine.

But the troubling aspect is to see this waning interest come during the financial crisis. League revenue is already down nearly across the board as season ticket renewals plummet, corporate luxury boxes sit empty and consumers buying fewer concessions and merchandise in most NBA cities. The salary cap for next year is almost certainly going to be flat at best and may even likely decline. Owners, many of which are hemorrhaging money not just from their NBA hobby-horse franchise but also in their real-life business ventures, are not going to spend a lot of money this summer.

And poor ratings just add one more proverbial box of unsold Jermaine O’Neal Raptor jerseys to the NBA-wide revenue bonfire whose black smoke has been clouding the entire 2008/09 season since Lehman Brothers tanked and AIG became property of Capitol Hill.

Despite my personal fascination with the topic, the finances and business operations of the League are not something a fan should really care about. The sport itself is why we’re all here watching. But when you find out that we’re all not here watching — not even for free from the couch — and you already know the economic crisis is affecting how teams are trading, signing free agents and even drafting, it raises a lot of concerns that teams will increasingly overvalue the bottom line at the expense of putting together a quality team.

And if no one’s watching anyway, why shouldn’t they?


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