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A double-double is a good thing for basketball players.
Good for the networks that carry the games, too — as in double-digit gains in viewers and demographics. That’s where national cable carriers TNT and ESPN stood with the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Makes sense. Both networks posted double-digit ratings and audience segment increases during the 2007-08 regular season, one of the most exciting in league history. A record 11 teams finished with 50 or more wins, including all eight in the Western Conference! In the tightest race in memory – the top-ranked Los Angeles Lakers had 57 victories, while eighth-place Denver Nuggets panned 50 — Western Conference seedings were not decided until the final-night of the regular-season.
There was more good fortune in the first round. The Utah-Houston and Cleveland-Washington series both went to six games. Even the Philadelphia 76ers won a couple, before succumbing to the Detroit Pistons.
On the down side, the much-hyped San Antonio-Phoenix match fizzled in five, as the Suns never recovered from Mike D’Antoni’s sideline meltdowns in Game 1 — would somebody please give the foul when you’re up three in the waning moments. More importantly, the Big Cactus-Big Fundamental contest didn’t take place in the second round or later, when the Nielsen numbers build.
Now, TNT, ESPN and ABC, which was up 19% to a 3.2 national average throufh its first four contests, are staring at population realities: the West balls big on court, but small in the DMAs.
Sure, LA trails only New York (don’t laugh, the Isaiah-less Knicks could return to the playoffs before this decade ends) in terms of size. But Salt Lake City, home to the Kobes’ second-round opponent, the Jazz ranks 35th on the Nielsen local market chart.
Still, that’s two places higher than San Antonio. The Spurs, the best team in pro sports — four titles in the past nine years — have never gotten much national respect or viewership as they prepared to invade the New Orleans Hornets, led by the man who should be named NBA MVP, Chris Paul (one game behind the Lakers without nearly as much talent). The Crescent City may be a great place for tourists or conventioneers, but it’s the NBA’s smallest market: No. 53.
Now market size can go out the window with competitive six- or seven-game series, but you get the idea.
Back East, the familiar group of Pistons – Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince have seemingly been together for a generation — represent Nielsen’s 11th seed. Detroit’s veteran group will try to go around the game’s budding big man, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Mickey may rule in Central Florida, but Orlando-Melbourne only ranks 19th where TV homes are concerned.
Both Pistons-Magic and Hornets-Spurs offer on-court intrigue, but starting the first game of both series on a Saturday night, against NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, Dan Lowry 400 on Fox, may make for low Nielsen tip-offs.
Then, there’s the little matter of Game 7 in Boston Sunday at 1 p.m. (ET). The decisive game should yield big numbers for ABC, which follows with the Jazz visiting Staples Center — the Lakers are in the second round for the first time in four seasons at 3:30 p.m.
But what if the Celtics choke? Or Joe Johnson, Al Horford, the incredibly athletic Josh Smith or veteran Mike Bibby play out of their minds for Atlanta?
The 37-win Hawks, returning to the playoffs after a nine-year absence, is a feel good story. Taking a couple of games makes it a great story. But sending it to a Game 7? Executives in New York, Atlanta and Bristol, Conn. need the Cs. Otherwise, the largest turnaround in NBA history — 66 wins, versus 24 last season — and veterans Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce take their ball and Celtic Pride home.
Not only does that air ball all hope of the league’s ultimate Finals — Boston and LA adding another chapter to their storied history — but an attractive second-round court date with the King, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, doesn’t hit the nets, either. The presumed Eastern Conference final series against the Pistons also goes packing.
And maybe James winds up leading the Cavs out of the East again, where the Spurs, after upsetting both the Hornets and Lakers, look to repeat. Surely, the TV sports community doesn’t want that: Last year’s San Antonio sweep averaged an NBA Finals’ low 6.2 rating.
Sounds like KG needs a double-double Sunday afternoon.