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NBA may suffer from big market losses

Three of the NBA's biggest teams aren't winning on the court. That could mean losses for the league off it.

(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

As the NBA prepares to wrap up its first month of the regular season it’s faced with a daunting realization: three of its big market teams are in for brutally unsuccessful seasons. And while parity is good for competition, too much of it in the wrong markets could be bad for business.

The New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, and Los Angeles Lakers have a combined win percentage of 40 percent with little hope for improvement. And while the large national followings of each team, coupled with their winning histories, still make them huge draws, losing seasons makes it hard to market teams. During last season’s woes, the Lakers saw their 320-game home sellout streak end, while the Celtics suffered an 18 percent drop in local TV ratings.

(Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)

This is dangerous for the NBA. While LeBron’s Cleveland homecoming and Golden State’s rise sell, those franchises don’t have the brand equity or fanbase that the Lakers, Celtics and Knicks enjoy. And it shows where it hurts most: in TV ratings, especially during the postseason. Despite being just one year apart, the 2009 Finals featuring Lakers versus Magic drew only half the game-to-game average TV audience that the 2010 Lakers-Celtics rematch did. In fact, of the 10 highest-rated Finals series, half involved at least the Lakers or the Celtics. Compare that to the 2014 Finals, which produced five-year lows for ratings and viewership.

(Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports)
(Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA is a star-driven league, but in a distracting world of social media, cable and on-demand TV, star power alone is no longer enough. LeBron James, arguably the league’s biggest star, has participated in five Finals, yet TV ratings for all five have never cracked the top 25. All six of Michael Jordan’s Finals appearances during the 1990s are among the 10 highest rated, despite five match-ups with small market teams.

This about more than just location: the Lakers and Knicks share their respective markets with second NBA teams, but they’re still important to the leagues’ ratings. The Lakers’ historically bad 2013-2014 season saw the franchise take a huge dip in the ratings while still staying ahead of the ascending Clippers. And despite a playoff run by the Brooklyn Nets and a subsequent spike in ratings, the Knicks still dominated the local TV market last season.

While the three teams may be able to sustain some down years, it’s impossible to predict how long each fan base can be expected to endure the losses before their attention drifts elsewhere. Fan interest may still be driving ticket prices up, but as the $24 billion NBA deal with ESPN and Turner Sports demonstrates, the real money is in TV.

You can follow Nick on Twitter at @Nick_Zobel.

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