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Scandal Effect: Does League Direction Matter?

In Sunday's post ("Needed Perspective"), Dave Berri draws attention to a key 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 seem to care much about the Black Sox scandal in spite of its magnitude. In our 24/7 sports news world, stories such as a mob-related ref, or Michael Vick's dog fighting 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 these kind of sports scandals 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, nonetheless, in a dominant position today so that 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.YearSeriesRating
CBS1976Boston Celtics 4, Phoenix Suns 211.5
CBS1977Portland Trailblazers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 212.7
CBS1978Washington Bullets 4, Seattle Supersonics 39.9
CBS1979Seattle Supersonics 4, Washington Bullets 17.2
CBS1980Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 28.0
CBS1981Boston Celtics 4, Houston Rockets 26.7
CBS1982Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 213.0
CBS1983Philadelphia 76ers 4, Los Angeles Lakers 012.3
CBS1984Boston Celtics 4, Los Angeles Lakers 312.3
CBS1985Los Angeles Lakers 4, Boston Celtics 213.7
CBS1986Boston Celtics 4, Houston Rockets 214.1
CBS1987Los Angeles Lakers 4, Boston Celtics 215.9
CBS1988Los Angeles Lakers 4, Detroit Pistons 315.4
CBS1989Detroit Pistons 4, Los Angeles Lakers 015.1
CBS1990Detroit Pistons 4, Portland Trailblazers 112.3
NBC1991Chicago Bulls 4, Los Angeles Lakers 115.8
NBC1992Chicago Bulls 4, Portland Trailblazers 214.2
NBC1993Chicago Bulls 4, Phoenix Suns 217.9
NBC1994Houston Rockets 4, New York Knicks 312.4
NBC1995Houston Rockets 4, Orlando Magic 013.9
NBC1996Chicago Bulls 4, Seattle Supersonics 216.7
NBC1997Chicago Bulls 4, Utah Jazz 216.8
NBC1998Chicago Bulls 4, Utah Jazz 218.7
NBC1999San Antonio Spurs 4, New York Knicks 111.3
NBC2000Los Angeles Lakers 4, Indiana Pacers 211.6
NBC2001Los Angeles Lakers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 112.1
NBC2002Los Angeles Lakers 4, New Jersey Nets 010.2
ABC2003San Antonio Spurs 4, New Jersey Nets 26.5
ABC2004Detroit Pistons 4, Los Angeles Lakers 111.5
ABC2005San Antonio Spurs 4, Detroit Pistons 38.2
ABC2006Miami Heat 4, Dallas Mavericks 28.5
ABC2007San Antonio Spurs 4, Cleveland Cavaliers 06.2

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, a number of 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 influence 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.

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