No Kobe? No Lakers? No problem.
Despite nearly every media outlet dooming the ratings performance of the NBA playoffs going forward now that the defending champs have been eliminated, media buyers believe that there is still plenty of player star power left on other teams to draw big audiences.
LeBron James, anyone?
"The Lakers certainly have a heavy national following, but the NBA has come back in such a way during this regular season and playoffs so far, that losing the Lakers will have less of an impact," said Adam Schwartz, sports specialist at Horizon Media.
"The star power of the Dallas (Mavericks), Miami or Oklahoma City, plus the national attention that LeBron (James) and the (Miami) Heat have generated all season, can each generate enough rating points to make the Finals a ratings success without the Lakers. There are plenty of compelling stories other than the Lakers," Schwartz added.
Sam Sussman, senior VP and media director at Starcom, said, “You still have some big-market teams alive with players of national notoriety, a good mix of veterans and young stars, the league MVP (Rose) and the league coach of the year (Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau).
With viewership up for the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs up double digits — part of a three-year steep upward ratings growth spurt for the league's postseason — some media Cassandras have suggested that the exit of the Lakers from championship contention might sour viewer interest.
Specifically, media buyers say that Lebron James, who left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat as a free agent last year under a cloud of controversy, has a good shot to make it to the league finals with his new team. And his star power would provide more than enough reasons to believe this year's championship round will produce solid numbers, buyers say.
(Although, it should be noted that earlier in James' career, as a member of the Cavaliers in 2007, he was part of the lowest-rated NBA Finals in modern history, with the four-game series averaging less than 7 million viewers per contest.)
Whether or not James proves as big a draw as Lakers star Kobe Bryan, it's unlikely that the numbers will approach last year's Finals ratings between the Lakers and Boston Celtics, a traditional marque match-up of league powerhouses that produced an average 10.6 rating and 18.1 million viewers per game, the highest since 1998 when Michael Jordan last played.
But don't count out the star power of James and national fascination with his Heat team, the potential presence of the big-market Chicago Bulls and the NBA’s regular season MVP Derrick Rose, or rising star young players like Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to keep the season-to-date fan interest high through the Finals.
Those who skoff at a smaller market Oklahoma City appearance in the Finals, the May 9 Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies game on TNT drew more viewers than last year’s comparable second-round matchup between the Lakers and Utah Jazz (5.6 million vs. 5.0 million).
Kevin Collins, senior VP and director of national broadcast at media agency Initiative, said, "Just because the Lakers are out isn't going to doom the Finals. Viewers are looking for fresh faces, new blood. A lot of fans are tired of Kobe and (Lakers Coach) Phil (Jackson)."
But if the ratings are down, ABC, which carries the Finals, already has a plan not to get burned.
"The networks realized that they probably wouldn't match last year's numbers, so many deals were done based on ratings guarantees that were 5-10 percent lower than last year’s Final’s ratings average,“ said one sports buyer, who did not want to speak for attribution.
“The NBA has had a stellar season ratings wise,” said Starcom’s Sussman. “The networks carrying the games have also enjoyed much success because of that. Could the finals ratings have been maximized more if the Lakers were still in it. Probably. But the it will not have that much of a financial impact.”