ABC toes foul line with its Lakers-Celts history focus

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To promote the upcoming Lakers-Celtics showdown, ABC and ESPN will heavily retail nostalgia from the team's legendary 1980s rivalry.

But will it be enough to revive what has recently been moribund interest in the NBA Finals?

On Monday, the networks said that ESPN will air today in its entirety — on the flagship net and in primetime — the final game of the 1987 Lakers-Celtics series, the last time the teams met in the postseason and a series won by Los Angeles. ABC also will work bumpers, interstitials and other material from the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era into its broadcast of the 2008 Finals that begins Thursday night.

"We're not reaching back to the future," said Norby Williamson, executive vp production at ESPN. "But we do have an obligation to educate." (The Lakers and Celtics met three out of the four years between 1984 and '87, with Los Angeles winning twice.)

For ABC and ESPN, it's a bet that last year's 6.2 household rating for the San Antonio Spurs' sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers — the lowest for the Finals in at least a quarter century — can be significantly goosed with the help not just of big market teams but a historic rivalry.

ESPN execs were as close to gleeful as they could be during a Monday conference call. "You don't get the best matchup every year," said John Skipper, exec vp content at ESPN. "This year we got it."

But for a league trying fervently to attract younger viewers, it also needs to be careful not to overdo the glory-days element. Any teenage fan, after all, wasn't even born the last time the teams played each other for a title.

Execs acknowledged a dance along the out-of-bounds line. "It's all about the mix," Williamson said. "You don't try to get the 60-year-old at the expense of the 15-year-old, and you don't try to get the 15-year-old at the expense of the 60-year-old."

The matchup between the teams with the Hollywood glitz and the New England intensity could also be more than just a ratings driver.

Experts say that after years of weak results marketing individual stars — the profile of such up-and-comers as LeBron James and Dwayne Wade hasn't translated into increased viewership — this year's matchup gives the NBA an opportunity to play to its more traditional strength.

"As a league they've hitched their wagons to individuals, and that hasn't gone so well," USC professor and sports consultant David Carter said. "This is a great opportunity for the NBA to pull back and focus on team brands again. The league can reposition its marketing messaging."

The stakes are equally high for ABC/ESPN; the networks, along with TNT, renewed their pro hoops contract last year for a deal that will run through 2015-16 at a reported cost of $7.6 billion.

Some forecasts estimate the household rating for the finals between a 10 and 12, depending on how close the games are and how long the series goes. If it hits the high end of that range —a result execs say is plausible given the ratings rebound during the regular season — it would mark the best number since the Lakers-Philadelphia 76ers series of 2001 (12.1) though still well shy of the midteen numbers the '90s Bulls and '80s Lakers series regularly generated. (The 1987 Lakers-Celtics Finals, for instance, averaged a 16.7 household rating.)

The expectation also ups the pressure on ABC to make this a blowout year. "If the numbers don't get into the double digits, they won't have the excuse of being able to say they didn't have the right teams," one sports insider said.

A significant amount of revenue will be on the line. The average 30-second spot in the NBA Finals will go for $350,000-$450,000 each, an increase from last year despite last year's low ratings. Still, the net sold many of its spots before the matchup was known, which could result in it leaving money on the table.

"Like the Super Bowl and other big sporting events, you don't know who's in the Finals (before selling)," a buyer said. "I think if this (known) was a while ago, they'd have a chance to drive up the price."

ESPN ad sales chief Ed Erhardt said that most of the inventory already has been sold but added that some had been held back. "There is late money that will show up," he said. "It's the best show on television right now." (partialdiff)
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