NBA Holds its Breath, With Dream Matchup in Doubt

May 29, 2009 | Fox Business

Matt Egan

The sports world’s dream NBA Finals matchup is slowly slipping through its fingers, potentially costing the league a chance to capture the nation’s full attention in a way it hasn’t since the days of Michael Jordan.

While basketball fans, players and presumably league and network execs prayed for an NBA Finals meeting between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — the National Basketball Association’s standout megastars — the opposition hasn’t cooperated.

James’s Cavaliers, who stayed alive by winning Thursday night, are trying to become just the ninth NBA team since 1947 to overcome a 3-1 deficit. Otherwise, the dream matchup will remain just that, a dream.

“There’s going to be a big drop-off if one or both of those guys aren’t there. It’s an immediate kick to the NBA,” said Darin David, a director for Millsport, a Dallas-based sports marketing and sponsorship agency.

To be sure, even if neither James nor Bryant reach the Finals, it appears the league is in store for a solid end to a record-breaking playoff season. And there’s little to suggest the NBA needs this matchup from a financial standpoint like the way the National Hockey League needed its resurgence this spring.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder the potential of a James v. Bryant matchup in terms of television ratings, merchandising and promotional opportunities.

“There’s no question from a marketing standpoint, it would be a coup for the NBA,” said Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.

That marketing coup would stem from the immense star power of Bryant and James, whose matchup would evoke a powerful storyline to casual fans who might not ordinarily tune in.

Bryant led the NBA in jersey sales in two of the last three years and James earned his first Most Valuable Player Award this year, sealing his place as the new face of the NBA.

“You’ve got two guys who transcend superstardom. They are at another level. They are pretty close to a Michael Jordan level,” said Marshall Glickman, former president of the Portland Trail Blazers and CEO of G2 Strategic.

Rooting Interests

A Kobe v. LeBron Finals matchup would also be a boon to Disney’s (DIS: 24.26, 0.29, 1.21%) ESPN/ABC Sports, which has exclusive radio and television rights to the series.

Officially, of course, ESPN said it has no favorites, at least not on the court.

“I am rooting for Nielsen. They’re my favorite team,” said Ed Erhardt, president of consumer marketing and sales at ESPN.

Nielsen has been a good team to root for so far this postseason as the NBA has seen stellar ratings so far. Some of the ratings strength can be attributed to a flurry of close games, including a record 20 games decided by three or fewer points.

According to the NBA, the league has notched seven record-breaking ratings games so far, including the most watched NBA game in cable history: 10.08 million watched to see the Cavaliers lose to the Orlando Magic during Game Four this week on Time Warner’s (TWX: 23.4, -0.16, -0.68%) TNT.

ESPN also lodged its most-watched college or pro basketball game ever this week as 9.44 million tuned in to watch Game Four between Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.

TNT’s viewership through its first 41 playoff games has jumped 20% from last year, drawing an average of 4.48 million viewers. While ESPN’s viewership is up 16% from a year ago, ABC’s 10 games have drawn 2% fewer viewers.

Erhardt wouldn’t say whether or not ESPN has sold out its inventory of commercials for the Finals but did say the league is offering a “similar” ratings guarantee to last year’s 9.5 rating promise.

“Sales are strong. There is a marketplace acknowledgement that it’s going to be a well-watched series regardless of who’s in it,” said Erhardt.

If there is inventory remaining and Kobe and/or LeBron fail to reach the Finals, it’s likely prices for the spots will drop considerably.

“I think they will sell out all their spots for the price they ask because there is a long track record here,” said Glickman.

Brand-Building Opportunity?

Aside from losing out on a likely ratings bonanza and a jump in jersey sales, the absence of a Kobe v. LeBron storyline could take away a significant marketing opportunity for the NBA.

“You get fairly few opportunities to build a brand but this one could be an opportunity in a big way. The NBA has struggled to recreate the magic of 10 to 25 years ago. This could potentially be that,” said Calkins.

Others say the NBA, one of the world’s most successful sports leagues, doesn’t need the matchup to enhance its brand.

“Would they like to have it? I’m sure they would like to have it. Anybody would be a fool not to,” said Glickman. “But I don’t think it’s something they have to have to get their brand out. That’s ridiculous. They are one of the strongest sports leagues in the world.”

A spokesman for the NBA also strongly argued there is no need for the NBA to rebuild its brand, pointing to the league’s record ratings this playoff season.

Still, given the recession’s impact on ad spending, it’s hard to believe the potential absence of Kobe and/or LeBron won’t have an impact on sales.

“A lot of advertisers may be waiting on their buy to see how good this matchup will be,” said Calkins. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they are still trying to unload their ads. This is a tough environment to be selling ads right now.”

Erhardt predicted that with or without Kobe and LeBron, the NBA Finals will continue to dominate the ratings throughout cable television.

“How many places are you going to get a 10 rating? You’ll get one with the NBA Finals,” he said.