There is no denying, The NBA has an image problem. There have been many things recently that have played into the demise of the NBA's ratings. While the ratings in the NFL continue to soar, the NBA's ratings have slowly declined over the past couple of years.
Take a look at this list compiled by Forbes of the top 10 money making sporting events of 2006:
• 1. Super Bowl
• 2. Summer Olympics
• 3. FIFA World Cup
• 4. Daytona 500
• 5. Rose Bowl
• 6. NCAA Men's Final Four
• 7. Winter Olympics Games
• 8. Kentucky Derby
• 9. World Series
• 10. NBA Finals
I guarentee you that David Stern and his boys up at headquarters do not like to see that. So what could be the problem? Well, here's a few obvious and also a few possible reasons.
1) "Thugary" of the NBA (2 recent brawls, Blazers/Pacers off-court issues, Ron Artest/Rasheed Wallace/Allen Iverson type personalities)
2) Still living in the shadow of the Michael/Magic/Bird Era.
3) Kobe/Shaq fued - took attention from what was really a great team
4) NBA on ABC is absolute horrible coverage. (Right now...!)
5) Big Market team (Knicks/Bulls) aren't really competitive
6) Undeveloped players due to so many coming straight from High School
7) The recent John Amaechi/Tim Hardaway debacle
And there are others as well.
Some or all of these reasons are commonly brought up when discussing reasons why the NBA is falling farther and farther from the top of the ratings list. The NBA is even taking action to fix some of the problems. The age limit rule was put into place to help prevent guys who were not ready to make the jump from getting drafted. Heck, the NBA even created the NBDL (minor leagues) because there was so many guys that were getting cut that actually had undeveloped talent. Last weekend's All-Star game in Las Vegas was a decision to help bring some excitement back into the league. Take the games biggest party to the party city of them all, putting them together was expected to be a good move for David Stern, but even that party set the record for lowest ever ratings for an NBA All-Star Game.
I have an interesting theory that doesn't seem to get a whole lot of talk, but this could possibly be a reason that could be added to the list of reasons. I'm not even sure this has a solution, but I feel it is at least worth discussing. I believe that the NBA's officiating is so awful at times, that it may actually be helping to cause the ratings to continue tumbling. You could use the argument that the officiating has always been a judgement call for the referee to make and therefore what makes today different than 5,10,25 years ago. In the past, the fans could boo or complain when they thought there was a bad call, but now we have 100 different angles on any given night to see when the refs are making a bad call. What does it say when you can expect at least one coach or player to complain about the officials usually a couple times per week. Mark Cuban routinely uses his blog to blast the officials, and while he may be using it to simply get in the heads of the official, either way - it seems to me that is very bad for the NBA's image. And the fact they know this is the case, makes it even worse. Part of a coach's responsibility is to "butter-up" the officials during the game so they are able to get more calls to go their way. A blog called Dorf on Law had a few comments about this that I found very interesting:
"What is extraordinary about the NBA is that these player-specific violations of blind justice are not only acknowledged but even celebrated. Hubie Brown, a former coach and broadcaster, would laugh and say things on official NBA broadcasts like "He hasn't been in the league long enough to get that call against Kobe," and "The refs aren't gonna make that call in Chicago." Such comments never, to my knowledge, evoked denials or discipline from the league. (The league does crack down on some things, though, such as unacceptable clothing choices and fighting with fans.) Contrast this with the NFL and MLB. Even though there is a lot of complaining in football about the rule called "roughing the passer," I have never heard anyone claim that certain quarterbacks get special treatment, only that all quarterbacks are either too exposed or too coddled. In baseball, you'll occasionally hear muttering that certain pitchers and batters receive the benefit of the doubt on balls and strikes; but this is denied by the leaders of the sport and is officially prohibited."
There are so many rules in basketball that are questionable judgement calls at the time of incident. If your a veteran you can get away with things that rookies can't. Traveling, charging, even flopping! (Apparently, the NBA is even considering now calling a foul against floppers.) Even if the NBA decides to enforce that rule, there are so many calls that theoretically the ref could call either way, and there could be an argument for either call. I think it's this lack of definitive officiating that turns a lot of people off from the game of basketball.
Now a days, players are looking for fouls and that's considered to be a talented style of play. 2 games that I have watched this year on National TV stick out in my mind as being over officiated. The first game was on Jan 4 when the Kings played the Lakers (the game Barkley first made the Bavetta comments). In that game, there were 80 total fouls called, and 102 total foul shots taken. The second game was last thursday when Lebron James played in LA against the Lakers. In that game there was 97 total free throws taken. I don't know about you, but to me, free throws are boring, and slow down the pace of the game. For a game to have that many free throws takes away from the excitment of the game. Going back to the Jordan/Bird/Johnson shadow, I think everybody knows that the game is not played as well these days as it was a few years ago. If you were to compare Michael Jordan's and Dwayne Wade's foul shots per game average, you'd find that in Jordan's last 6 years, he averaged 6.1 free throws a game, in Wade's first 3 seasons, he has averaged 8.8 free throws per game. The fact that the players these days are not as talented as they were 10-15 years ago, is causing the officiating to find itself in difficult positions each and every night. That inconsistency, I feel, is hurting the integrity of the game.
So, to wrap this up: Is there a solution? Is this just something that we have to accept and chalk it up as being "part of the game"? I just feel like the officials have too much control of the outcome of the game. Do bad calls even out? Not always. I have to figure Stu Jackson and David Stern have discussed these problems, and in many cases, probably do nothing but beat their head against a brick wall. In the end, it's probably a no-win situation and it's just something we, and the NBA, has to accept.