NBA Commissioner David Stern breathed a sigh of relief last night when the Miami Heat took charge in the fifth game of their playoff series with the Indiana Pacers. The NBA already faces a ratings challenge in the Western Conference with the small market Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. After a protracted strike that shortened the season, compressed the schedule, and lowered the quality of play, the Association was hoping for a more appealing Finals match-up than they are likely to get. The Thunder and Spurs are clearly the best teams in the West; the problem is they don’t have many fans. An NBA Finals matchup against the Indiana Pacers would have produced historically low ratings.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio are the third and fourth smallest television markets in the Western Conference. Only Memphis and New Orleans have smaller markets. Before the season began there were 105 possible Western Conference Finals matchups, and 98 have larger combined markets than Spurs-Thunder. There are fewer television households in Oklahoma City and San Antonio combined than there are in Minneapolis, alone. The combined size of the television market for the Spurs and Thunder is 52% smaller than the median matchup (Minnesota Timberwolves - Denver Nuggets) and 81% less than the best matchup of the Lakers (or Clippers) and Dallas Mavericks.
The ratings of NBA Finals are directly related to the market size of the participating teams. There have been 13 NBA Finals played since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls. The Spurs have played (and won) in four and the Los Angeles Lakers have played in seven of the Finals. The ratings are 24% lower when the Spurs are in the Finals compared to the Lakers.
The challenges of a Spurs-Thunder matchup would have been compounded by an Indiana Pacers win last night. Indianapolis is the sixth smallest market in the NBA and only Milwaukee is smaller in the Eastern Conference. There has not been an NBA Finals from smaller markets than Oklahoma City and Indianapolis since the Fort Wayne Pistons played the Syracuse Nationals in 1955. Conspiracy theorists were probably silenced last night because the game wasn’t close. Nonetheless, the NBA and ABC, the network televising the Finals, are hoping that the midsize market Miami Heat (with considerable star power) or large market Celtics or 76ers prevail in the East. Regardless of the Eastern Conference winner, however, the ratings for the NBA Finals are likely to be the lowest in history edging out the 2007 matchup between the Spurs and Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.