As rumors swirl of a girlfriend-spawned feud between Los Angeles stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, league broadcasters TNT, ESPN and ABC must carry on without their biggest draw
Did girl trouble not only ruin the Los Angeles Lakers chances for a championship threepeat, but also the National Basketball Association's broadcast partner's chances of scoring record ratings growth?
Even if widely circulating rumors about a feud between Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are true, the latter hypothesis might be stretch.
But tying the Lakers' far run into the NBA playoffs the last three springs to surging pro-hoops ratings for TNT, ESPN and ABC isn't nearly so far-fetched.
On Sunday, the defending league champions were emphatically swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks, ending a string of three straight Lakers appearances in the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.
And it was the Lakers re-emergence as a league power in 2008 that coincided — directly, most broadcast executives will tell you — with ratings renewal for the NBA, which had seen its TV numbers bottom out the previous spring. That 2006-07 season culminated in the mid-market San Antonio Spurs beating the Rust Belt-centered Cleveland Cavaliers for the league title.
Game 4 of that Spurs sweep produced only a 6.5 rating/12 share total audience rating, representing only about a third of the viewers who had turned out a decade earlier to watch the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls take out the Utah Jazz for the 1996-97 NBA title.
But then, in 2008, the Lakers — a perennial ratings draw even in down market for televized basketball — secured Spanish star Pau Gasol in what many considered a trade coup. The Lakers went through all four rounds of playoffs, ultimately succumbing to their ancient rivals, the Boston Celtics, but the ratings spike was on.
Ratings for that Finals round increased a whopping 50 percent from the previous year — great news for TNT owner Turner Networks and ABC/ESPN parent company Disney, which jointly shell out about $930 million a season for domestic broadcast and digital rights to the league.
The NBA's TV ratings kept picking up steam through Sunday, with TNT's coverage through 29 playoff games up, on average, by 26 percent over 2010.
Not surprisingly, the league and its broadcasters are reluctant to publicly admit they're dismayed that the Lakers are out of the playoffs.
Remarking on last year's surging playoff ratings, a Turner official said it was the competitiveness of the series — and not as much the teams involved — that drive the TV numbers the most.
“The longer these series go, the more momentum and audience they gain,” the executive said.
Privately, network officials are not happy with the possibility of, say, the Atlanta Hawks squaring off against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Finals.
In terms of big draws, all is not lost for the league, which could see the star-laden Miami Heat — home of LeBron James — face off against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But whether the networks can continue their winning streak without the Lakers in the starting lineup is very much in question.