Doug White says ESPN's current ratings success with the National Basketball Association this season can be traced back to last season and summer.
The senior director of programming and acquisitions at the total sports network points to the 2008 NBA Finals and that little competition in Beijing for creating more buzz for pro hoops.
"I think a lot of what we're seeing this season goes back to the [Los Angeles] Lakers-[Boston] Celtics championship series," said White. "Then, we saw the U.S.'s top players giving it their all in a fabulous performance in the Olympics. That momentum has carried over."
Approaching the midway point of the 2008-09 campaign, ESPN, over 34 contests through Jan. 10, averaged a 1.4 household rating, a 17% improvement from 33 telecasts at the corresponding stage of last season, according to Nielsen Media Research data. That translated into a 21% rise in viewers to 1.73 million from 1.43 million. The network also scored gains among men 18 to 34 (7% to 433,000 of those watchers on average), men 18 to 49 (13% to 732,000) and men 25 to 54 (14% to 634,000).
ABC, which tipped off its schedule with a Christmas Day doubleheader, capped by Celts-Lakers, jumped 30% to a 4.3 rating from a 3.3 mark, while netting a 44% viewership advance to 7.92 million from 5.49 million. The Finals rematch, in which LA ended Boston's then 19-game winning streak, dunked a 5.3 national rating and 9.98 million viewers, the top NBA regular-season mark in four years.
Last season's glory aside, White pointed to a bevy of players -- LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnet, Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups -- who are putting winning, not individual statistics, above all else, as something that's attracting more people to the small screen.
"Over the last few years, the young players, along with some key veterans, are playing so hard and want to win so badly, that it's brought the NBA to a very high level," said White.
He also pointed to heated competition in the Western conference last year, when the Golden State Warriors despite winning 50 games failed to make the playoffs, as another key Nielsen driver.
"The intra-conference positioning is so tight and competitive," he said. "Teams are fighting and scratching for every win."
The Lakers and Celtics, despite a recent rough patch, are not the only teams capturing fans attention.
"The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been this hyped team. This year, with LeBron continuing the extremely high level he showed at the Olympics, they are truly that good," said White. He also believes that Paul's New Orleans Hornets are turning into a fan favorite, along with Wade's resurgent Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic, featuring another Olympian, 2008 slam dunk king Dwight Howard.
Thus far, this season's top three NBA games on ESPN were the Nov. 11 Detroit Pistons-Lakers contest, which delivered a 2.1 rating and 2.02 million homes; the Jan. 9 Cavs-Celts game, with a 2.0 average and 1.93 million homes; and the Dec. 10 Phoenix Suns-Lakers tilt, at a 1.8 and 1.79 million households.
ESPN, which will present 72 games this season, continues tonight with a doubleheader: New Orleans travels to Cleveland in the opener at 8 p.m. (ET), followed by the Magic entering the Lakers' lair at Staples Center.
ABC, with 18 contests, gets back on the NBA hardwood Jan. 25.