The NBA's No-Shows: As Ratings and Attendance Drop, Basketball Struggles to Find Its Game

Newsweek, February 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

The NBA's No-Shows: As Ratings and Attendance Drop, Basketball Struggles to Find Its Game


L.A. vs. New York figures to be a showcase for NBA excitement. But by the time the Lakers arrived for their once-a-year showdown against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last month, the dysfunctional L.A. team bore little resemblance to last year's NBA champion. Its two superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, were embroiled in a fierce public squabble over who was "the man." While Bryant played a one-man game, his teammates stood around and glowered. And O'Neal, who sat out the contest with a foot injury, never even emerged from the locker room for an NBC cameo. The Laker loss was its 15th--two more than the team suffered all last season. Meanwhile, Bryant appears to be reaching new heights of selfishness. "I already have a ring," he told a confidant. "Now I want to get a scoring crown and an MVP trophy."

Everyone expected the NBA to stumble after Michael Jordan's departure and a bruising labor battle that wiped out almost half a season. But the game that captivated America and seemed on the verge of global conquest appears--thanks to lackluster play and uninspired stars--to have lost its magic. TV ratings are sinking, down 17 percent from last year on flagship NBC, and attendance has plummeted in onetime hotbeds like Boston (minus 11 percent), Charlotte (minus 15 percent) and Houston (minus 17 percent). Most telling is how empty, high-priced seats now provide the backdrop to so many games. Sources say NBC, which is in the middle of a $2.64 billion deal with the NBA, is very concerned about the league's future. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol declined to discuss the deal, and NBA Commissioner David Stern is playing defense: "You can't shut down your business for half a year and not suffer lingering effects," he says. But one executive with longtime ties to the league says the problems may be lasting: "Too many terrible teams and too many so-called stars that the public doesn't really give a damn about."

As the NBA held its annual all-star game festivities last weekend in Washington, D.C., it had precious little to celebrate. The gathering, usually one perpetual party, began with a "state of the league" meeting between management and players' union leaders to consider how to inject new life into an ailing sport. "We can't afford to take our fans for granted," says Stern. "We're prepared to look at everything." The NBA will consider new rules to boost offensive play as well as programs to help younger players stay in college. It also needs to retool its vaunted hype machine. The NBA once thrived by promoting its stars--especially the holy trinity of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan--above the game itself. Now, too many players ballyhooed as "the next Jordan" have turned out to be counterfeits who place winning on equal footing with individual stats and highlight-film moves. And too many owners are paying in too many ways for lavishing millions on one-dimensional talents.

The league has also suffered from an influx of younger--and far more immature--talent, including a record 10 players straight out of high school. It's hard to fault the players, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds. "It was mainstream America that became so obsessed with athletes that they began handing out million-dollar shoe deals," says Norm Nixon, who starred alongside Magic on the great Laker teams of the '80s. "You can't spoil the child and then chastise him for being selfish."

The changes have exacted a severe toll on the game itself. NBA basketball, once the embodiment of speed and grace, has devolved into a slow, roughhouse grind. Gone is "Showtime," which captivated fans with its high-speed, precision offensive charge. Dull, stand-around "isolation" offenses, which are far less fan-friendly and rely on just a few individual stars, are now the rule. …

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