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Scandal Effect: Does League Direction Matter?

In Sunday’s post (“Needed Perspective”), Dave Berri draws attention to a critical question concerning the NBA scandal — do fans care about such things as much as the media makes out? As Dave points out, they didn’t care much about the Black Sox scandal despite its magnitude. In our 24/7 sports news world, stories such as a mob-related ref, Michael Vick’s dogfighting involvement, or Barry Bonds’ BALCO connections create a media stir that may dwarf genuine fan interest, much less backlash.

A second question that comes to mind regarding this kind of sports scandal is whether the impact of the scandal hinges, to some extent, on the direction of league popularity. In 1919, baseball was king with no close rivals. Even the broader entertainment market was quite limited. The NFL may face more competition but is in a dominant position today, so the Vick business or Pacman Jones’ 75th arrest may not have much of an impact, at least in the short term.

The NBA finds itself in a very different position. Although live attendance continues to do well (as it does in the NHL), television viewing of the NBA has been tanking. Here are Nielsen Rating figures for the NBA Finals (from Wikipedia on NBA Nielsen Ratings):

Net. Year Series Rating
CBS 1976 Boston Celtics 4, Phoenix Suns 2 11.5
CBS 1977 Portland Trailblazers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 2 12.7
CBS 1978 Washington Bullets 4, Seattle Supersonics 3 9.9
CBS 1979 Seattle Supersonics 4, Washington Bullets 1 7.2
CBS 1980 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 2 8.0
CBS 1981 Boston Celtics 4, Houston Rockets 2 6.7
CBS 1982 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 2 13.0
CBS 1983 Philadelphia 76ers 4, Los Angeles Lakers 0 12.3
CBS 1984 Boston Celtics 4, Los Angeles Lakers 3 12.3
CBS 1985 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Boston Celtics 2 13.7
CBS 1986 Boston Celtics 4, Houston Rockets 2 14.1
CBS 1987 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Boston Celtics 2 15.9
CBS 1988 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Detroit Pistons 3 15.4
CBS 1989 Detroit Pistons 4, Los Angeles Lakers 0 15.1
CBS 1990 Detroit Pistons 4, Portland Trailblazers 1 12.3
NBC 1991 Chicago Bulls 4, Los Angeles Lakers 1 15.8
NBC 1992 Chicago Bulls 4, Portland Trailblazers 2 14.2
NBC 1993 Chicago Bulls 4, Phoenix Suns 2 17.9
NBC 1994 Houston Rockets 4, New York Knicks 3 12.4
NBC 1995 Houston Rockets 4, Orlando Magic 0 13.9
NBC 1996 Chicago Bulls 4, Seattle Supersonics 2 16.7
NBC 1997 Chicago Bulls 4, Utah Jazz 2 16.8
NBC 1998 Chicago Bulls 4, Utah Jazz 2 18.7
NBC 1999 San Antonio Spurs 4, New York Knicks 1 11.3
NBC 2000 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Indiana Pacers 2 11.6
NBC 2001 Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 1 12.1
NBC 2002 Los Angeles Lakers 4, New Jersey Nets 0 10.2
ABC 2003 San Antonio Spurs 4, New Jersey Nets 2 6.5
ABC 2004 Detroit Pistons 4, Los Angeles Lakers 1 11.5
ABC 2005 San Antonio Spurs 4, Detroit Pistons 3 8.2
ABC 2006 Miami Heat 4, Dallas Mavericks 2 8.5
ABC 2007 San Antonio Spurs 4, Cleveland Cavaliers 0 6.2

ESPN’s Bill Simmons takes up the impact on the context of NBA problems in his column, One Man out, One League in Trouble. His article does not try to blow the Ref scandal up; instead, it details how the league faced and had not dealt with several important issues before it, including referee performance, a troubled playoff system, backward incentives from the lottery system, and so on. A couple of years ago, I discussed some of these issues (A College Lesson for the NBA) when I noticed that the Shell Houston Open had outdrawn the TV audience for the NBA playoffs at the same time.

Whether the current problems will enhance these TV troubles for the NBA, I can’t say for sure. Simmons raises the possibility that the scandal might even encourage managerial decisions that help the league in the long term:

If you’re a diehard NBA fan, you’re horrified but strangely hopeful, because we needed a tipping point to change a stagnant league that was headed in the wrong direction … and maybe this was it.