NBA Finals: Ratings, Rivalries, Rigging

Last year when the San Antonio Spurs took on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the television ratings were some of the lowest of all time for Finals games shown during primetime. But last night’s game three in the series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics brought the NBA the highest ratings it has seen for an NBA finals game three since 2004, up over 40% since last year.

There are plenty of contributing factors that could be causing this rise in ratings: Kobe Bryant is a show stopper with a major fan-following from all over the country. The NBA itself has been hyping the nostalgia of the series based on the Celtics-Lakers battles of the 80s, and everyone knows viewers love a good rivalry. And maybe, just maybe, the Spurs were too boring to make anyone want to watch, and this ratings boom is simply a natural effect of not having the Spurs involved. I also have a theory that Jack Nicholson and the other celebrities the Lakers draw in provide some interest for our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Additionally, that record-breaking game three last night came on the heels of allegations from the jailbound former referee Tim Donaghy that the NBA told the referees to make sure the Lakers beat the Kings in game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, to bring about a game 7 — a game 7 the Lakers eventually won. While this news could certainly raise interest in the goings on of the NBA, it might also raise some doubts about the purity of the buildup to these finals and the neck-and-neck results we’re seeing now.

Kings fans may feel completely ripped off, but fans of other teams too may believe they have grounds to complain as well. For fans of teams from areas less populated than L.A. or Boston, this boom in ratings, as it coincides with allegations of NBA corruption, can give rise to some major conspiracy theories. Major cities like L.A., Chicago, Boston, and New York, bring with them huge populations of potential viewers and merchandise consumers, and since one of the major allegations against the NBA is that it fixed a Western Conference Final game to lift the Lakers over the Kings, many fans (especially embittered fans of the teams who didn’t make it to the finals and got knocked out by those pesky Lakers) might be tempted to jump to some additional conclusions about NBA corruption.

From a business point of view, given the option between, say, a Sacramento team, and a team like the Lakers, it’s clear one result would seem more profitable than the other. Just like, and I’m sure my fellow Jazz fans will agree here, when Michael Jordan, millionaire and marketing man’s dream, won his fifth and sixth titles, that was probably a more appealing result than giving those back-to-basics Jazz from a state with a total population of just over 3 million any title at all. This isn’t to say either of those Jazz-Bulls series was rigged or any games in the 2008 playoffs were rigged so the NBA could get this dream matchup… But the recent allegations make it seem more believable than ever before that it could have happened… Let’s just say I won’t be at all surprised if this series happens to go all the way to a much-hyped game seven.

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