THE NBA ON NETWORK TELEVISION: A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS
MARIO R. SARMENTO
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY
OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR
THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS IN MASS COMMUNICATION
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
The author wished to express his gratitude to his advisors, Dr. Bernell E.
Tripp, Dr. David H. Ostroff, and Dr. Jon Roosenraad; Dr. Tripp for her diligence in
reading the thesis and commenting on corrections that needed to be made, Dr. Ostroff
for his advice and suggestions on how to research and approach the topic, and Dr.
Roosenraad for his assistance.
The author would also like to thank his parents for making this study possible.
Thanks also go to the National Basketball Association for providing the videotapes
used in the analysis section as well as providing the league's contract information.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOW LEDGM ENTS ........................................ ii
A B STRA CT ................................................. vi
1. IN TRODU CTION .................................. 1
R eview of Literature .......................... ..... 4
M ethodology ............................ ......... 8
Im plications of Study .......................... ..... 9
N o te s . . . . . . . . . .. 10
2. 1940s-50s: FROM NBA BEGINNINGS TO TELEVISION
BEGINN IN G S .............................. 12
The NBA is Born .................. ...... ........ 13
The DuM ont Network .............................. 15
Sports on Television .......................... 17
The Shot C lock ............................. 19
Television Coverage .......................... 23
C conclusion ........... .......... ..... ......... 25
N otes . . . . . . . . . .. 2 5
3. THE 1960s: A TURBULENT DECADE FOR THE NBA ... 29
Sports on Television . ........ ................... 29
NBA ....... ........................ ....... 31
The ABL .................... ........ ......... 32
NBA Changes Networks ............. ........... 34
The A BA .................... ......... ....... 36
The Knicks Become Winners ......... ........... 38
C conclusion .............. ............. ....... 39
N otes . . . . .. . . . . .. 3 9
4. THE 1970s: A DECADE OF UNFULFILLED
EXPECTATION S ............ ..................... 43
Expansion ............. ............... ........ 43
The Sport of the '70s ........................... 44
Criticism s of Coverage ....................... 46
CBS Struggles to Improve Coverage .............. 48
Ratings Decline .................. ...... .... ... 49
NBA Image Problems .............. ............... 52
A BA .................................. ....... 55
C onclu sion ............................ ....... 57
N otes . . . . . . . . . .. 5 7
5. THE 1980s: A DECADE OF PROSPERITY ........... 62
B ird and M agic ................................... 62
The NBA M akes Changes ................. .. .. 63
The Resurgence of the NBA .......................... 65
D avid Stern ...................................... 67
The Superstars ............................. 69
C onclu sion ............................ ....... 7 1
N otes . . . . . . . . . .. 7 2
6. THE 1990s: ON THE COATTAILS OF MICHAEL
JO R D A N ............................. ....... 76
Jordan Reaches the Pinnacle .................... . 76
Jordan R etires ..................................... 77
N ew Stars Fill the Void ....................... 78
Jordan R returns ......... ... .......... ........ 80
The NBA Again Faces Life After Jordan . ... . 83
C onclu sion ...................................... 84
N o te s . . . . . .. . . . . . 8 4
7. KEY GAMES IN TELEVISION HISTORY ............. 88
Game 1 1954 Eastern Division Playoffs: Boston Celtics vs.
N ew Y ork K nicks ....................... ........ 89
Game 1 1956 NBA Finals: Philadelphia Warriors vs.
Fort W ayne Pistons .................. ... .......... 90
Game 7 1970 NBA Finals: New York Knicks vs. Los
Angeles Lakers ................... ..... ......... 90
Game 7 1984 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Los
A ngeles Lakers ........ .. ......... .. ........ 91
Game 1 1991 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles
L ak ers . . . . . . . . . .. 9 3
N otes . . . . . . . . . .. 9 5
8. HOW TELEVISION CHANGED SPORTS ............... 97
N o te s . . . . .. . . . . . . 1 0 1
9. ANALYSIS: A COMPARISON BETWEEN 1980s NBA
GAMES AND 1990s NBA GAMES ................... 102
1970s T elecasts ................................... 104
Pregame Coverage in the 1980s .................. 106
Teases ....................... ...... ........ 107
Introduction of Announcers ................... 107
Team Lineups/Injury Report .................... 108
1990s Pregam e .................. ...... .. ...... 109
T eases .............................. ....... 109
Injury R report ................... ..... ........ 110
A n aly sis . . . . . . . . . 1 1 1
1980s Gam e Coverage ............................. 112
Commentary ............................. . 113
Themes of the Games ...................... ..... 118
R eplay s ........................ .. . ..... 12 1
G graphics ........................................ 123
H alftim e Coverage ................................ 124
C ontent .. . . .. . . . .. .. . . .. 124
Postgam e Coverage ................................ 127
C ontent ............................. . .... 128
C onclu sion ...................................... 129
N o te s . . . . . . . .. . . . 13 0
10. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS. ................ 134
Im plications ................... ..... .. ....... 137
APPENDIX A: NBA FRANCHISES BY DECADE SINCE 1946 ........ 140
APPENDIX B: NBA TELEVISION CONTRACTS ................... 145
B IBLIO GR APH Y ............................................ 146
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ..................... ........ 154
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Mass
THE NBA ON NETWORK TELEVISION: A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS
Mario R. Sarmento
Chairman: Dr. Bernell E. Tripp
Major Department: Journalism and Communications
This thesis is a documentation of the history of the National Basketball
Association (NBA) on national television from the early 1950s until 1998.
Specifically, this thesis examines the implementation of television coverage of the NBA
and how coverage changed the sport. Newspaper and magazine articles from previous
decades were selected to document the league's history on television as well as rule
changes and historical developments in the NBA as well. Key games in the history of
network coverage of the NBA are cited, and they were selected based on their
historical significance to the NBA on television. Also, an analysis of games from the
1980s and 1990s was conducted to determine how television coverage has changed
since the early days of the medium.
Specifically, this was done through the use of newspaper and magazine articles
that offered criticism of the commentators who covered the game. The games
themselves were broken down into four segments: pregame, halftime, postgame, and
game coverage. The pregame show was further segmented into four areas: the
opening portion of the telecast, which in broadcasting terminology is known as a tease,
introduction of announcers, and team lineups/injury reports. The content of the
pregame shows was also analyzed. It was determined that pregame coverage has
grown more sophisticated since the 1980s, with more elaborate teases and more
sophisticated analysis of injuries than before.
Game coverage was also broken down into four subjects: commentary during
the games, themes of the games as described by the announcers during the games, the
use of replays, and the use of graphics. Commentary in 1990s games was found to be
more detailed and insightful than coverage during the 1980s, and there were more
replays and camera angles used in 1990s coverage as opposed to 1980s coverage.
More sophisticated and detailed graphics were used in the 1990s, specifically the use
of shot charts to monitor the players' performances and the use of shooting percentage
and turnover and rebounding statistics.
There was one consistent element to coverage from the '80s to the '90s, and
that was the announcers' use of game themes to describe to viewers how one team had
defeated another. The game themes have also become more elaborate over the years;
where once announcers in the '80s highlighted two or three key themes that led a team
to victory, coverage in the '90s indicated that there were several themes announcers
used to present the storylines of the games. Finally, halftime and postgame shows
were examined for their content and it was found that coverage in the 1990s provided
more analysis and elaboration on key plays in the games than in the 1980s.
Finally, this study examined how television coverage changed both the NBA,
and mass media coverage of the game. It was determined that NBA officials made
several rule changes over the years in an effort to appeal to television viewers.
Journalists were also forced to write about other aspects of the games since viewers
could see the results on television. This led to more in-depth analysis of games.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has grown up over the last 20
years. Once on the verge of collapse, and unwanted by television, the NBA has
rebounded to become arguably the most popular league in the nation. Among young
people, the NBA has in fact surpassed the National Football League (NFL) as the
number one sport.1 If this statement would have been made 10 years ago, it would
have been dismissed as ridiculous. It was through television that the league finally
established itself as a worthy counterpart to Major League Baseball and the NFL.
The league got its first television exposure during the 1953-54 season on the
long-since folded DuMont network. At that time, baseball was still the national
pastime, and pro football was beginning to emerge as a popular sport in its own right.2
Even college basketball was considered a more attractive television commodity than
the NBA.3 The NBA was considered to be a minor-league operation at the time, but
when the college point-shaving scandals of the early '50s rocked college basketball and
left the NBA relatively unscathed, the league began its emergence into the national
However, the interest faded, and after DuMont folded in 1954, the league
began a partnership with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) for the 1954-55
season. Yet, the promising partnership between NBC and the NBA was diminished by
the slow pace and fouling exhibitions NBA games had become in the 1950s. Without
a time constraint for a team to get a shot off, the NBA was always played at a slow
pace, with one team opening up a bit of a lead and then putting the ball into a deep
freeze until time ran out.5
The league was dying a slow death, and the snail's pace threatened to wipe out
professional basketball entirely. A few games in particular showed how the game was
played back then. On November 22, 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons defeated the
world-champion Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 in the lowest-scoring game ever.6 The
problems continued three years later, when 106 fouls were called and 128 free throws
were shot in a playoff game between the Boston Celtics and Syracuse Nationals.
Celtic great Bob Cousy scored 50 points, but 30 of them came at the foul line.7 He
was the only player to make more than five field goals in the entire game!8 A year
later, NBC gave the NBA an opportunity to shine by nationally televising a playoff
game between the Celtics and the New York Knicks. The 95-foul display ended in
humiliation for the league when the network switched away before the game had even
The savior for the NBA emerged in the form of Syracuse Nationals owner
Danny Biasone, who instituted the 24-second shot clock that most agree saved the
league.10 The 1954-55 season was the first played with the shot clock, and the results
were a more wide open style of play far more appealing to television viewers than the
old style. The first national telecast of an NBA Finals game took place one season
later, when the Philadelphia Warriors and Fort Wayne Pistons met for the
The NBA has been selected for this study to determine how television coverage
changed mass media coverage of basketball and the way the viewers perceived the
game. The early years of television and the problems faced by the NBA have largely
been ignored, and not much was written about the league before the popularity
explosion in the 1980s. But this was a league that struggled for nearly 40 years to find
its niche with the public, and it took a host of exciting young stars and the arrival of
David Stem as commissioner to turn the NBA's television fortunes around.
This study will examine television coverage of the NBA, including articles from
previous decades that chronicled the league's woes. Also, there will be a focus on the
broadcasts of key games that were critical in the league's evolution or regression and
how they impacted the league's development. These benchmarks include the Knicks-
Celtics game of which NBC ended coverage abruptly, the first NBA Finals game ever
broadcast, the 1970 NBA Finals, that brought unparalleled attention to the league, the
1984 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Celtics that served as the
springboard to the NBA's current success, and the Chicago Bulls-Lakers showdown in
the 1980s that served as a changing of the guard in one respect, and the continuation
of league popularity.
In addition, there will be a comparison made to demonstrate how coverage of
the league has changed since the popularity explosion in the early 1980s. To
accomplish this, there will be an examination of different games for the 1980s and
1990s to analyze the content of commentary and visual presentation of NBA games.
Specifically, the comparison will be made between a regular season game from 1980, a
playoff game telecast on a local Milwaukee TV station, the 1987 NBA Finals, the
1991 NBA Finals, and the 1998 NBA Finals. Criticisms of how the announcers called
the game will also be analyzed. This study will note how the announcing style has
changed, if at all, from the years just before the NBA popularity increased. Also, the
production quality of the games will be analyzed, as well as the focus of commentary
from the announcers. Comparisons will also be made in the pre-game and post-game
formats to follow any trends or changes in coverage.
Review of Literature
Only a few books and articles specifically dealt with television coverage of the
NBA. Other sources dealt with the reasons for the NBA's success or lack of success.
Several other works focused on the great players and their impact on the game, which
in turn influenced the television coverage of it. Finally, some articles dealt with the
analysis of network coverage and/or commentators that worked for those networks.
This section explores all of these works in the field of television coverage of
In In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports, Benjamin G.
Rader discussed the key developments in sports that have been directly attributable to
television.12 He traced the NFL and baseball back to the first telecasts and explained
how sports evolved from a minor aspect of television programming in the early days to
becoming a major aspect of television programming. Rader also described how the
increase in prominence on television led to rule changes in football to make the game
more interesting for viewers at home, how network contracts were originally
negotiated, and how these contracts have ballooned in recent years. Rader specifically
described the NBA's beginnings as an unwanted, unwatched sport in the 1950s. He
then described the league's lack of success through the 60s and 70s and critics'
perspectives on the NBA's television problems. However, there was not a historical
analysis of the NBA's television coverage or as much in-depth analysis as Rader
devoted to baseball and football.
Rader also explored the evolution of sports in America in another book,
American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. 13 In
the book, Rader asserted that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) took the
lead among the major networks in increasing sports programming with the belief that
there would be an increased visibility for the network. Rader credited Roone Arledge
with ABC's success in doing so. This success led to the other networks creating an
intense competition for the right to televise the major sports. Rader also credited
Arledge with bringing the fan into the game with his use of a variety of camera angles.
As far as basketball was concerned, Rader insisted that the inability of the NBA to field
a strong team in New York was a major reason why television produced only modest
revenues. He also described how the 24-second clock was a hindrance, as well as an
aid, to the NBA's television future. Rader did admit to the NBA's rapid growth on
television in the 1980s, but as in his first book, he did not go into any detail about the
league's television history or the reasons for its success.
The National Broadcasting Association listed all of the contracts in every major
sport in the book, Sports on Television.14 The National Broadcasting Association
listed NBA rules on local telecasts, the local television stations that covered each team
in the NBA, and the stipulations of the league's contracts at the time. However, there
was no historical analysis of the relationship between the league and television, and
there was no discussion on current coverage of the games.
Marc Gunther discussed the role Roone Arledge played in developing the
modem technique of packaging sports for television in his book The House That
Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News.15 A chapter in Gunther's book was
devoted to Arledge's ascendance in ABC sports from his arrival in 1960. Basketball
was mentioned briefly, but Gunther noted the innovations Arledge brought to sports
programming. However, this chapter on Arledge's influence on sports programming
Bert Randolph Sugar also examined Arledge's contributions to televised sports
in The Thrill of Victory: The Inside Story of ABC Sports.16 Sugar followed the course
of ABC's sports division throughout its history. The focus of this book was primarily
on the NFL and Arledge's "Monday Night Football" extravaganza than on the NBA.
Again, there was only a brief mention of basketball, since ABC had the rights to
televise professional games for ten of the leaner years in league history.
In addition to these books, other books about NBA history made brief
mentions of television, which were important pieces to the historic puzzle. Michael
LaBlanc presented a chronological history of every team in the NBA in his book,
Professional Sports Team Histories: Basketball.17 LaBlanc echoed the sentiments of
Rader when he wrote that the NBA suffered on television due to the fact that the New
York Knicks never had a winning team. In his section on the Knicks, LaBlanc also
described the nationally televised Knicks-Celtics playoff game in 1954 which was so
poorly played that NBC had to cut away from it.18 LaBlanc concluded that this game
and others like it before the shot clock did much to turn viewers and networks away
from the NBA. More a chronology of the league's teams, this book was not a source
of much information relating to television other than the Knicks-Celtics game
Zander Hollander and Alex Sachare's traced the chronology of the entire NBA,
season by season, since it began as the Basketball Association (BAA) in 1946. In The
Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia,19 Zander and Hollander noted the key
developments in each season. Television was not mentioned prominently, except for
the section on the adoption of the 24-second clock that many argued saved the league.
Also, the impact of stars like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and others
was mentioned in association with NBA success on television.
In Roland Lazenby's chronology of finals games, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year
Celebration, he noted the development of the shot clock as a major step in enhancing
the NBA's image on television.20 In addition, he described the impact of the key
championship games on television, as well as the star players' impact on the league.
Lazenby pointed out the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1960s and 1980s, as well as the
impact Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had on the league on television. Michael
Jordan's impact was also assessed by Lazenby in the Chicago Bulls' four Finals
Lindsey Nelson provided an autobiography about his life and career in the
book, Hello Everybody, I'm Lindsey Nelson, devoting an entire section to sports on
television and the role he played in covering sports for NBC when the medium was in
its infancy.21 Nelson provided a brief two-page glimpse of his days as a the play-by-
play man for NBC when the NBA had a contract with the network. He also described
how the league adapted to television those days, but he did not go into detail on the
history of the NBA on television and he provided no insight as to how the games were
Chapters in Benjamin Rader's books and a chapter for the Gunther and Sugar
books are the only books to deal with the NBA's history on television. Even so, the
history is brief since the league did not establish itself as an equal of the NFL and
baseball until the 1980s. However, several newspaper and magazine articles
chronicled the league's development on television, as well as its shortcomings. The
authors of these articles have also offered the prevailing opinions as to why the league
was struggling or prospering. Lazenby and Hollander & Sachare provided historical
backdrops for the NBA's relationship with television, and helped to support claims of
whether the league was advancing on TV or regressing.
This paper will provide a historical analysis of NBA coverage on television,
starting from the first television contract through the NBA's current deal with NBC.
Each decade will be assessed in terms of how it either contributed or set back the
NBA. This will be done through the interpretation of articles written during these time
periods in publications such as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago
Tribune, Business Week, and TV Guide. This will also be accomplished through the
analysis of televised game coverage. These articles were chosen because they either
documented the NBA's history on television or they documented the league's history
itself and provided insight into how the NBA was perceived during those times.
Articles will also be used to describe the key games in the history of NBA television
coverage, as well as historical publications about the NBA which also focus on these
games. APA style will be used for all publications used in this thesis.
Each of the games selected for analysis will be scrutinized in terms of the
pregame, halftime, postgame, and game coverage. Specifically, the content of the
halftime and postgame shows will be examined to determine how the 1980s telecasts
differ from the '90s telecasts. Analysis of the pregame section will be broken down
into four areas: teases that start the telecasts, announcer introductions, and player
injuries and team introductions. The teases will be compared to see how they have
changed since 1980. Announcer introductions and player injuries and team
introductions will also be analyzed to determine any differences in coverage.
During the games themselves, the criteria that will be analyzed are the
commentary of the announcers, game themes the announcers touch on, the graphics
used during the games, and the use of replays and camera angles. Specifically, the
analysis of the announcers will be compared to determine how calling the games has
evolved over the last twenty years. Also, their analysis will be examined for detail and
depth. Criticisms of the announcers will provide background for the way they call the
games. Themes of the games that announcers touch on during the course of a game
will be examined to determine how these themes are created and supported.
Graphics will be analyzed to determine how they have changed over the years,
and how sophisticated they have become. The use of replays, which was pioneered by
ABC for its 1960s NFL telecasts, will be analyzed as well. There will also be a focus
on the number of replays, times during the game when replays were used, and the
various angles used by the networks in their coverage. The analysis of these games
will also be supplemented by clips from the 1970s to further examine the evolution of
NBA coverage. Theoretically, the 1970s and 1980s broadcasts should set the model
for the nineties' broadcasts, with the '90s' telecasts being the most sophisticated and
most technologically advanced.
Implications of Study
The implications of this study are that television changed the coverage of
basketball in mass media, and that the sport itself was changed by television. It is
expected that through the course of the NBA's relationship with television, the medium
has affected the way sportswriters cover the games as well as changing the way
broadcasters cover the games. Specifically, there are three questions this researcher
hopes to answer in this study:
1) How did television change the structure of the NBA game itself, through
rule changes or expansion?
2) How did television change the way sportswriters covered the NBA and in
what ways did it change print journalism coverage?
3) How has television affected the way games are broadcast today?
1. Jeffrey Meitrodt, "NBA's Popularity Concerns Owners," The Times-Picayune 24 Jan.
1997, p. S58.
2. Benjamin G. Rader, In its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: Free Press, 1984), 51, 85.
3. Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of
Televised Sports (Upper Saddle Bridge, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996), 270.
4. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York:
Villard Books, 1989), 55.
5. Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York: Villard Books, 1989), 61.
6. Charles Paikert, "When Biasone Took 24 Seconds to Save the N.B.A.," The New
York Times 28 Oct. 1984, Section 5, p. 2.
7. ibid, p. 2.
8. Zander Hollander (ed.), The NBA's Official Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball (New York:
American Library 1981, 63).
9. Michael L. LaBlanc, Professional Sports Team Histories (Detroit: Gale Research Inc,
10. Charles Paikert, "When Biasone Took 24 Seconds to Save the N.B.A.," The New York
Times 28 Oct. 1984, Section 5, p. 2.
11. The Associated Press, "Warriors Topple Nats Five, 109-104," The New York Times 30
March 1956, p. 15.
12. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Televised
Sports (NY: Free Press, 1984).
13. Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of
Televised Sports (NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1996).
14. National Association of Broadcasters, Sports on Television (Denver: Bortz & Company,
15. Mark Gunther, The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News (Boston:
Little, Brown & Company Inc., 1994).
16. Bert Randolph Sugar, The Thrill of Victory: The Inside Story of ABC Sports (New York:
Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1978).
17. Michael L. LaBlanc, Professional Sports Team Histories: Basketball (Detroit:
Gale Research Inc. 1994).
18. ibid, p. 79.
19. Zander Hollander & Alex Sachare, The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York: Villard
20. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapoils: Masters Press,
21. Lindsey Nelson, Hello Everybody, I'm Lindsey Nelson (New York: Beech Tree Books,
1940s-1950s: FROM NBA BEGINNINGS TO TELEVISION BEGINNINGS
When television became a major part of American culture in the 1950s,
sports programming was not considered to be essential to network scheduling.
The DuMont Television Network pioneered sports programming, making football,
basketball, and baseball a regular part of its schedule. At first, writers and sports
promoters believed that television would have an adverse affect on sports by
hindering attendance figures. This view would change at the end of the decade, as
would the image of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
When the 1950s began, the NBA had been in existence for only four years.
The league received an early boost when four teams from the stronger National
Basketball League (NBL) defected to the NBA in 1949. The NBA also made the
transition to television and the DuMont Network in 1953. However, excessive
fouling and a slow style of play threatened the league's television future. A rule
change in 1955 sped up the game, and may have saved the league as well. By the
end of the 1950s, the NBA emerged as a league with growth potential. Most of
the teams were in larger markets than they had been at the start of the decade, and
the league changed networks to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and
maintained its television presence.
The first basketball game that appeared on television was not even a
professional game, but a college game. NBC had cornered the market on televised
sports, airing the first-ever baseball game, boxing match, tennis match, and football
game. All of these events were aired in 1939. One year later, NBC added to its
list of firsts by broadcasting the first basketball game, a college game between the
University of Pittsburgh and Fordham on February 28 in New York City.1 At this
time, the NBA had not even been formed. Instead, the NBL, a forerunner of the
NBA, was the preeminent professional league. The league was made up of
formerly independent clubs and clubs owned by the Goodyear and Firestone
Rubber companies of Akron, Ohio, and the General Electric Company of Fort
The NBA Is Born
In 1946, Walter Brown of Boston, Al Sutphin of Cleveland, and Ned Irish,
a major college promoter, were among the leaders who formed the Basketball
Association of America (BAA).2 In just 10 years, college basketball had made the
jump from small gyms to big business.3 College doubleheaders at Madison Square
Garden had attracted a huge following, and the college doubleheader became a
Professional basketball teams had existed for nearly 50 years, yet were not
in the mainstream of sports.5 Hockey, on the other hand, had been somewhat
successful.6 Owners of big city arenas who had a lot of open dates purchased
hockey teams to fill seats, and these hockey teams proved to be valuable assets.7
This was the blueprint the BAA leaders sought to follow, as well as to draw
from the popularity of the college game by recruiting graduating players. The
leaders met on June 6, 1946, to organize their new league. There were 11
members of the BAA, and all had access to large arenas.8 Five were connected
with National Hockey League (NHL) clubs. Five others were tied to the American
Hockey League, the sport's top minor league. The 11th was Mike Uline, who ran
not a hockey team but an arena in Washington, D.C.9 Arthur Daley of The New
York Times noted the importance of the owners having access to large arenas,
writing that "This is an important distinction because lack of adequate facilities has
been the main stumbling block for all previous circuits."10 Daley predicted that
"the new league may not click overnight. However, it cannot help but succeed
The first game in modem professional basketball history took place on
November 2, 1946, with the New York Knicks playing Toronto in Canada.
However, over the next two seasons the BAA would struggle to survive. The first
season saw no universal radio coverage and little, if any, coverage at all from
newspapers except for home teams.12 The second season was even tougher, as
Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, and Pittsburgh all folded.13 The Providence
Steamrollers would fold the next year after posting a 12-48 record.14 The BAA
was sinking fast and would need a boost to stay afloat.
The boost came in the form of the NBL, which was the more competitive
league. NBL teams were based in the Midwest, and it the teams had most of the
established professionals. The league also had the most important player: a 6-10
center from DePaul named George Mikan who played for the Minneapolis Lakers.
A writer for the Associated Press lamented that the loss of the Lakers was the most
devastating loss for the NBL, and the loss of Mikan would be equally large.
Already, it was noted in The New York Times that, "Big George Mikan rates as one
of the game's all time greats."15
Just before the 1948-49 season, Minneapolis, led by Mikan, along with
Rochester and Fort Wayne, joined the BAA. The top players were now playing in
the biggest arenas in the biggest publicity outlets.16 This move changed the BAA,
and so did Mikan. An article in The New York Times proclaimed, "Minneapolis'
George Mikan broke every N.B.L. scoring record last season and was the league's
biggest individual drawing card."17 At a time when any player scoring more than
20 points per game was rare, Mikan averaged an unheard of 28.3 point per game
(PPG) for the season.18 He won the scoring title, and the Lakers won their first
championship in the BAA. The NBL, however, was dead. After the loss of
Mikan, the quality of the league had been reduced considerably. The season was
played out, and six remaining franchises were absorbed by the BAA the next year.
The name of the unified league became the NBA.
By the time the 1950-51 season ended, the NBA found itself in the
mainstream of major league sports for the first time.19 It had total access to all of
the college stars, filling the void left by the college scandals. In addition, there
were several top players in the league, led by Mikan. Soon the television age
would give the league a greater opportunity for expansion, and it would be an
obscure fourth network that would provide the NBA with its first opportunity on
The DuMont Network
In 1937, an engineer named Allen B. DuMont applied for and received an
experimental television license. DuMont had been the vice president of the
DeForest Radio Company in 1931, and that year he started the Allen B. DuMont
Laboratories, Inc. From 1931 to 1936 DuMont's company would be the only one
to mass produce cathode-ray tubes, which allowed a person to see electronic
impulses graphically displayed. DuMont's company became the first to
manufacture television sets, and soon the engineer began tinkering in the field of
television and created his own network.20
DuMont's first television station, W2XVT, began transmitting from
Passaic, New Jersey in February of 1939.21 Until 1954, the DuMont Television
Network would join NBC, CBS, and ABC as the networks of the nation. DuMont
would also offer several innovations along the way.
The network established many television firsts, such as televising the first
children's television series, the first soap opera and regularly televised professional
football and basketball games.22 Several prominent figures would get their start on
the network, including Mike Wallace (60 Minutes), Roone Arledge (president of
ABC News), comedian Ernie Kovacs, and Jackie Gleason.23
The network was most innovate when it came to televising sports. Peter
Kerr of The New York Times wrote, "Relatively few people in the early 1950s
knew or cared about professional football."24 They did not care, that is, until the
DuMont network began televising New York Giants games in 1952. The next year
the network expanded to covering other NFL teams on a weekly basis.25 The
DuMont Network's audience also grew when DuMont began broadcasting NBA
games that same year.26
For the 1953-54 season, the NBA agreed that DuMont would carry 13
regular season games at a cost of $39,000. By this time, the league had already
experimented with television in local markets. As early as 1948-49, The New York
Times reported that all Knicks games at Madison Square Garden would be
televised locally.27 The local station, WJZ-TV, also had exclusive rights to televise
Knicks' playoff games.28 However, the DuMont network provided the league with
the opportunity to go national. The DuMont Television Network folded in 1955,
but DuMont had established that sports programming could be a profitable
venture. NBC soon picked up where DuMont left off, and the NBA was back on
Sports on Television
NBC and the NBA forged a contract that kept the league on television for
the next seven seasons, from 1954-55 to 1961-62. However, NBA ratings were
lukewarm at best. There were few articles that examined the NBA's development
on television during this time, but there were several articles related to the impact
television was having on sports, particularly baseball and football.
The initial concern sports promoters had with television was that it would
affect the attendance in stadiums. Time reported in its "Radio and TV" section
that, "Michigan Athletic Director Fritz Crisler told delegates: 'We're ready to throw
out television. Video could damage our gains seriously, and it is up to [us] to act
immediately.'"'29 This same tone was taken in another article in Nation's Business
entitled, "Sports Behind Glass." Again, sports promoters and owners questioned
whether television would hurt attendance figures. Revere McVay reported that
Ned Irish, the Knicks owner, said that "television--instead of being hostile to the
Garden gates--proclaims an event to a broader base of the public than any other
medium."30 Irish even conducted an experiment during the season to see if
television did hurt attendance figures. He barred cameras from the first half of the
season, then televised the second half31 McVay reported that, "Nothing unusual
was noted during the first half of the season. But advance sales jumped
considerably during the second half even in cases where one team had its allure
dimmed by losses."32
McVay also wrote that televised sports were also responsible for attracting
a female contingent, particularly in boxing and wrestling. This was confirmed
when McVay reported that "A sample audience in the Garden has revealed that as
many as 42 percent will be female."33 There was also the feeling amongst
television executives that television would attract the curious and educate them on
the fine points of whatever game they were watching. Then actual attendance at
the games would improve as a result.34
McVay also noted that television had changed the role of the sports
commentator. He wrote that while the radio announcer could conceal his lack of
insight by distorting the action and passing it off as the truth, "TV reporting
demands competence and expert evaluation. "3 He also wrote that the television
audience found out that there was more to basketball than just putting the ball in
the hoop. He cited that broadcaster Curt Gowdy, himself a former basketball
player, "pointed out different shooting styles, offensive tactics and defensive
counters, adding to the suspense and judgment of the viewers."36 He concluded
the article by writing that television would have the same effect on sports as radio
did. Namely, that attendance would increase as television exposed more people to
the games themselves.
The same argument was carried out in a Business Week article called, "TV
Disrupts Sports Business." In the article, the author wrote that television was
affecting sports the same way it was believed television had affected plummeting
box office numbers for movies.37 The author did conclude that in the long run
television would eventually pay off for sports in overall income--mostly by
attracting new fans.38 The author added that the concern over attendance figures
was enough to persuade the NBA to ban television from all cities except for New
In "Sports and TV: What Next?", the author noted that sports promoters
realized that television "had increased the number of fans for all sports by the
millions."40 John Lardner provided his own breakdown of sports on television in
an article entitled, "Sports on TV--A Critical Survey." Lardner examined each
sport and his perceived notions about how television had impacted those sports.
Lardner's only assessment of basketball was, "I think it's fair to say that watching
basketball and hockey in person is preferable to watching them on television."41
The Shot Clock
During the early television years, the NBA was being affected by its image
as a rough-and-tumble game. In the early '50s, fouling had increased significantly
as the stalling game took its toll on the league. In 1954, NBC executives decided
to give the NBA a national showcase for the playoffs, the Knicks against a rising
power in Boston in Madison Square Garden. The result, however, damaged the
league's image and paved the way for a major rule change. After 95 fouls "one of
the worst basketball games ever played"42 was preempted by NBC. Accounts of
the game in The New York Times stated only that, "The Knicks experienced what
was simply the worst night of the season. "43 There was no mention of the game's
impact on the national television audience or the fact that NBC had preempted its
coverage. But according to Michael LaBlanc, the league's television fortunes had
taken a giant step backward. After this episode and others like it, such as a 19-18
game played between Fort Wayne and Minneapolis in 1950, NBA owners knew a
change was needed or their league would cease to exist. Enter Syracuse Nationals
owner Danny Biasone. For three years Biasone had told anyone who would listen
that the league needed a shot clock to eliminate the stalling game.44 Biasone
explained his reasoning:
There was no way we could stop the stalling and fouling without a time
element. Other sports had limits--in baseball you get three outs to score, in
football you must make ten yards in four downs or you lose the ball. But in
basketball, if you had a lead and a good ball handler, you could play
around all night. The only way for the other team to stop that was to grab
him and send him to the line. Then you'd foul him back. It was dull. 45
Biasone's idea was based on a test he had run during the summer of 1954,
in which he had some professionals and a group of high school players participate
in an experimental game while he used a stopwatch. Biasone discovered that most
shots were taken within 12 seconds, so he recommended that the clock be 24
seconds because he figured that during a 48-minute game, each team would have a
minimum of 60 possessions.46
The owners experimented in the exhibition season, found Biasone's idea
made sense, and instituted the 24-second clock for the 1954-55 season. Stalling
was prevented, but there was still the matter of excessive fouling. So the Board of
Governors adopted a rule limiting the number of fouls per team per quarter, after
which each foul became a shooting foul.47 The two rules were perfect
The immediate impacts of the new rule changes were felt. Scoring jumped
through the roof as tactics and coaching became less of a factor.48 The players
were finally free to do what they did best, which was to score and show off the
skills that in time would make the NBA such an attractive television commodity.
During the first season with the shot clock, NBA teams averaged 93.1 points per
game, an increase of 13.6 points per game over the previous year. In 1955 the
Boston Celtics became the first team in league history to average over 100 points
per game for an entire season; three years later every team in the league would
better that mark.49
However, none of the major newspapers commented on the impact of the
rule change and only The New York Times acknowledged the rule changes at all.
The story simply said that, "Emphasizing an effort to 'speed up play', the directors
of the National Basketball Association adopted two rule changes yesterday."50 The
fact that the rule changes were ignored in the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago
Tribune, and The Washington Post indicated the lack of coverage the league
received at that time. Baseball and football still ruled the sports pages, and the fact
that there were no NBA teams in those cities at the time also contributed to the
lack of newspaper coverage afforded to the NBA. Time magazine did analyze the
implementation of the shot clock and how it affected the NBA. It was reported
that, "This new rule has made the pro game a better, faster, more exciting
sport. In other years, 'freezing' the ball in the late stages was the bane of the
Despite the success attributed to the new rules changes, new problems
emerged. Rader argued that the new rule had made it difficult for fans to get
excited until the last quarter of the game.2 Rader felt that since it was difficult for
teams to build a lead and then "sit" on it, it appeared the players were not exerting
themselves until the last quarter.53 He also wrote that if a team had a huge lead in
the last quarter, then that last quarter would be unexciting.54 Futhermore, Rader
stated that if the score was close in the middle of the last quarter, then what had
transpired before was insignificant.55 Again, there was little newspaper or
magazine coverage during the period to substantiate or refute Rader's claims. For
whatever reason, basketball was still not on par with football and baseball as a
major sports league. But the implementation of the shot clock proved to be
instrumental in the NBA Finals in 1955.
Biasone's rule change ended up benefiting his team, the Syracuse Nationals,
most of all. The Nats, as they were called, had fallen to the Minneapolis Lakers
and George Mikan in seven games in the 1950 NBA Finals. In 1954-55, led by
their Hall-of-Fame forward Dolph Schayes, Syracuse finally won the
championship, in seven games over the Ft. Wayne Pistons. The irony was that the
Nats had to come back from a 17-point deficit in the second quarter to win the
title. If not for the shot clock, the comeback would not have been possible, a fact
not lost on Biasone. "If it wasn't for the shot clock, it would have been the dullest
game in history,"56 he said. "Fort Wayne was up by 17. Under the old rules, they'd
have gone into a stall. Then there'd have been a flurry of fouls."57
There was little newspaper coverage of how the presence of a shot clock
had made Syracuse's victory possible. Both The Washington Post and The
Chicago Tribune simply reported the facts of the contest, without even
acknowledging the fact that without the shot clock Syracuse's comeback would not
have been possible. This was in keeping with the notion that the NBA simply was
not on the level of football and baseball in the mainstream of sports fans.
The NBA produced only modest revenues on television, due in part to the
fact that the New York Knicks were unable to field a winning team.58 Benjamin
Rader, in his book In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sport,
argued that Ned Irish, the Knicks owner, was so abrasive and irritating to the other
owners that he was unable to get their help in building a strong franchise. That and
ill-advised trades and poor drafting helped to doom the Knicks in the mid-1950s.
Rader further argued that a strong franchise in New York would have produced
more lucrative contracts for the league as well as increasing the NBA's overall
Newspapers of the time did not provide any analysis of how Irish ran the
Knicks during this period. In fact, the NBA was rarely in the sports pages, and
when it was the New York Times usually provided only accounts of the games
themselves. There was no analysis of strategy or management moves or the
influence of television on the game.
In 1956, the first NBA Finals game was nationally televised, Game One of
the Philadelphia-Fort Wayne series. The NBA appeared to be on its way on
television, but former NBC broadcaster Lindsey Nelson recalled how everyone in
the league was still learning to cope with the young medium. It seemed that
commercial time-outs were a source of problems in those early days. Nelson wrote
in his autobiography, Hello Everybody, I'm Lindsey Nelson, that commissioner
Podoloff had an answer:
He (Podoloff) was traveling to all the televised games to be sure that
everything went well. He knew that the future of the sport lay in its
success on the tube. And when television needed a time-out, the stage
manager would tell Podoloff. He would then walk briskly around behind
the bench, tap one coach on the shoulder, and say, 'Call time out.'. That's
how time-outs were handled.60
By the 1957-58 season the NBA had emerged as a league with growth
potential. This was supported by the fact that the Fort Wayne Pistons moved to
Detroit and the Rochester Royals moved to Cincinnati. Only three years earlier,
half of the league's teams had been based in cities of less than 1,000,000 people;
now only the Syracuse Nationals were in that category.61 The NBA image was
also boosted by the influx of new stars that drove gate receipts and salaries up, and
it made the league's television prospects appealing.
An article in TV Guide, "Hooping it Up For Television," examined the
importance of television to the NBA. In it the author wrote that, "Network
coverage of pro basketball not only has spread the fame of the sport but has
increased the stature of the individual players."62 The result was that major cities
were sending Commissioner Podoloff applications to join the league. Podoloff
attributed this to television. He said that "'All this interest has suddenly come up
since the games have been on network TV."'63 The NBA was scheduling games in
non-league cities, which allowed for audience TV build-ups in promoting the
return of college-area stars such as Bill Russell (San Francisco), Elgin Baylor
(Seattle), and Slater Martin (Texas). Also, owners continued to voice their disdain
for televising home games. Celtics president Walter Brown said that "'on the days
the games were televised from Boston Garden, we drew less than 5,000 fans. The
other Garden playoff games averaged 12-13,000 fans.'"64
There was also criticism of the broadcasts themselves from players and
coaches. Celtic coach Red Auerbach said that he did not feel NBA telecasts were
as good as they should have been. He added that, "'They should give the viewers
more at halftime. More interviews with players, coaches, and officials."'65 Bob
Cousy added that he felt there were not enough close-ups of players during the
games. He said, "'The expressions of emotion (on a penalty) or anguish (when a
shot is missed) would bring more tension to the telecasts."'66 Despite the criticisms
from owners, players, and coaches, the NBA continued its relationship with NBC
into the 1960s.
The 1950s were a time of experimentation for the NBA on television; in
fact all of television was experimental at the time. The league gained its first
television exposure only to be undone by its slow pace and propensity for excessive
fouling. Biasone's shot clock saved the game and revitalized it on television. The
NBA made the move to NBC after the DuMont network folded in 1954, and the
league made small strides on the new medium. By the end of the decade, the
league and television had forged a partnership that would last, despite all of the
problems the league would endure, through the next four decades.
1. "Tune in to the history of sports TV," USA Today 3 Dec. 1991, p. 3C.
2. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York:
Villard Books, 1989), 39.
3. ibid, p. 39.
4. ibid, p. 39.
5. ibid, p. 39.
6. ibid, p. 39.
7. ibid, p. 40.
8. ibid, p. 40.
9. ibid, p. 40.
10. Arthur Daley, "Short Shots in Sundry Directions," The New York Times 1 Nov. 1946, p.
11. ibid, p. 28.
12. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 41.
13. ibid, p. 44.
14. ibid, p. 44.
15. The Associated Press, "3 Quintets Ready to Change Leagues," The New York Times 9
May 1948, Section 5, p. 7.
16. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 47.
17. The Associated Press, "Four Pro Quintets Jump to New Loop," The New York Times 11
May 1948, p. 34.
18. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 47.
19. ibid, p. 57.
20. Philip J. Auter & Douglas A. Boyd, "DuMont: The Original Fourth Television Network,"
The Journal of Popular Culture 29 (Winter 1995): 63.
21. ibid, p. 64.
22. ibid, p. 68.
23. Peter Kerr, "A Network of the Past Could Be A Model for the Future," The New York
Times 3 June 1984, Sect. 2, p. 27, col. 1.
24. ibid, p. 27.
25. ibid, p. 27.
26. ibid, p. 27.
27. "The News of Radio", The New York Times 19 May 1948, p. 54.
28. ibid, p. 54.
29. "Air Wave of the Future," Time 30 Jan. 1950, p. 66.
30. Revere McVay, "Sports Behind the Glass," Nation's Business Sept. 1950, p. 44.
31. ibid, p. 44.
32. ibid, p. 44.
33. ibid, p. 45.
34. ibid, p. 45.
35. ibid, p. 86.
36. ibid, p. 86.
37. "TV Disrupts Sports Business," Business Week 27 Jan. 1951, p. 52.
38. ibid, p. 52.
39. ibid, p. 52.
40. "Sports and TV: What Next?" Business Week 16 June 1951, p. 24.
41. John Lardner, "Sports on TV--A Critical Survey," The New York Times Magazine 25
Dec. 1955, p. 27.
42. Michael L. LaBlanc, (ed.), Professional Basketball Teams: Basketball, (Detroit: Gale
Research Inc., 1994), 78.
43. Joseph M. Sheehan, "Celtics Trounce Knickerbockers in First Game," The New York
Times 17 March 1954, p. 37.
44. Lazenby, Roland, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters
Press, 1996), 59.
45. Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York: Villard Books, 1994),
46. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
47. Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York: Villard Books, 1994),
48. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
49. Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York: Villard Books, 1994),
50. "Basketball Loop Changes 2 Rules," The New York Times 24 April 1954, p. 23.
51. "24 Seconds to Shoot," Time 20 Dec. 1954, p. 56.
52. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Transformed Sports (New York:
Free Press, 1984), 146.
53. ibid, p. 147.
54. ibid, p. 147.
55. ibid, p. 147.
56. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
57. ibid, p. 67.
58. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports, (New
York: Free Press, 1984), 146.
59. ibid, p. 146.
60. Lindsey Nelson, Hello Everybody, I'm Lindsey Nelson (New York: Beech Tree Books,
61. Zander Hollander (ed.), & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 72.
62. "Hooping it Up For Television," TV Guide 7 Feb. 1959, p. 22.
63. ibid, p. 22.
64. ibid, p. 23.
65. ibid, p. 23.
66. ibid, p. 23.
THE 1960S: A TURBULENT DECADE FOR THE NBA
In the 1960s there was more of a focus for writers on the relationship
between sports and television than there was for the NBA and television. In the
NBA, franchise moves were dictated by market size, although reporters during that
time never expressed that. For example, the Lakers and Hawks moved from small
market cities Minneapolis and St. Louis to Los Angeles and Atlanta, respectively.
Yet none of the major newspapers discussed the fact that Atlanta and Los Angeles
were better television markets than St. Louis and Minneapolis.
The NBA also faced a challenge from two upstart leagues, the ABL and the
ABA. The ABL folded after only a year-and-a half, but the ABA, which started in
1967, would battle the NBA for college and professional talent. The league was
unceremoniously dropped from NBC in 1962, but with a new commissioner the
NBA found a home on ABC. League television fortunes were on the rise,
culminating with the Knicks' championship season of 1969-70.
Sports on Television
In the early 1960s, writers were still examining the relationship between
television and sports. James Tuite of The New York Times argued that the advent
of television had created the need for insightful analysis, and networks soon turned
to former athletes to describe the action to viewers.1 Tuite wrote that, "Some
(former athletes) of them lack a mellifluous voice and a smooth delivery, but their
know-how, their enthusiasm and their love for the game have brought a new
dimension to broadcasting."2 In 1966, ABC Sports President Roone Arledge of
ABC wrote that "Physically, professional basketball is an excellent sport
fortelevision; it's played in a confined area and the cameras can be placed to show
the agility, finesse, and contact."3 Arledge also wrote that one of the growing
problems was that there was a feeling that everything that occurred before the last
10 minutes of the game was inconsequential.4 Arledge later wrote the theory was
inaccurate, unless a person wanted to see the results or wanted to bet on the game.
He added that the principal weakness of basketball was that the commentators did
not educate the public well enough on the subtleties of basketball strategy, as they
did in football. Arledge contended that this was difficult since there was no natural
break in basketball, because the action was constant.
There was also a backlash by writers during the 1960s against the TV
timeout and the overcommercialization of sports. An article in Newsweek called
"Breaks in the Game," cited the example of Celtic player-coach Bill Russell being
fined $50 during the 1966 season for refusing to call a TV-ordered timeout in the
midst of a Celtic rally against the Philadelphia 76ers.5 Richard L. Tobin argued
that sports should be returned to the journalists from Madison Avenue in a
Saturday Review article called, "Time Outs and Other Nonsense in TV Sports."6
William Johnson described the impact television had on sports in an article
called, "TV Made it All A New Game." Johnson contended that "in the past 10
years sport in America has come to be the stepchild of television. "7 Johnson
maintained that television money was responsible for the high salaries earned by the
athletes, as well as keeping great franchises afloat that would otherwise go
bankrupt.8 Johnson also described how television dictated franchise shifts in each
of the major sports. The Milwaukee Braves, Minneapolis Lakers, and Chicago
Cardinals all shifted locations almost entirely because of the prospects of
television.9 He added that in 1969, there were 87 major league franchises in
basketball, football, baseball, and hockey. Just a decade earlier, there were only
42.10 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said himself that without television, half of
the NFL's 26 teams would not exist and the rest would be struggling." Johnson
ended by describing how baseball had been affected by television in terms of the
sport's loss in popularity.
By the time the 1960-61 season arrived, there was one major geographical
change in the NBA. The Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles as the
league expanded westward. The irony was that it was the prospect of a rival
league sprouting on the west coast that forced NBA owners to accept the move.
Following the glory days of Mikan, the Lakers were losing so much money that
they were forced to sell off their players to meet expenses.12 Then Laker
management learned that major league baseball was moving a franchise to
Minneapolis.13 Team owner Bob Short knew the competition would be too much
for the Lakers, so he asked the league to move the franchise to the recently
constructed 14,000-seat SportsArena in Los Angeles.14
Originally the league owners turned down the request, 7-1, but then they
heard that Abe Saperstein, the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, had
announced plans to form the American Basketball League (ABL).15 None of the
owners wanted the ABL to get a head start in establishing franchises in the vast
western market, so they voted 8-0 to allow Short to move the team to Los
Angeles.16 Hence, the NBA's westward expansion was born from necessity. None
of the newspapers noted that the Lakers' move to Los Angeles might have had
something to do with the fact that Los Angeles was a far larger market than
Minneapolis. Also, Sports Illustrated did not cover the franchise relocation at the
time it occurred.
In 1961, Abe Saperstein's vision of a basketball league came to fruition,
when, the first ABL game was ever played. Melvin Durslag explained in a TV
Guide article entitled, "Keeping One Eye on the Basket, the Other On TV", that
Saperstein's principal reason for forming the rival league was to exact revenge on
his NBA counterparts.17 Durslag wrote that Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem
Globetrotters, had noticed that Los Angeles was "shockingly devoid" of
professional basketball.18 Durslag added that, "With the encouragement of several
owners in the National Basketball Association, who professed to be his friends,
Saperstein tried to establish an NBA franchise in the city."19. Saperstein's reasons
for wanting to establish a team in Los Angeles were that the Dodgers, who had
moved from Brooklyn in 1958, were flourishing, professional football was also
prospering in Los Angeles, and race tracks were setting attendance records.20 Los
Angeles was an untapped gold mine as far as Saperstein was concerned, and he
wanted to be the one to place an NBA franchise there.
But Saperstein said he was betrayed by the owners when they switched
their allegiance to Bob Short and the floundering Minneapolis franchise. Enraged,
Saperstein "resolved to teach the NBA a lesson."21 He started the ABL in 1961,
featuring teams in eight cities (including Honolulu), with Saperstein serving as the
owner of the Chicago franchise and as the league commissioner.22
Durslag also wrote that the NBA hoped the ABL would disappear by next
season, because if it didn't, its chances of landing a national television deal would
be enhanced.23 In 1961-62, the ABL had appeared on regional and local television,
conflicting at times with NBA games on television.24 And since the ABL playoffs
began in mid-March, around the same time as the NBA playoffs began, there was a
chance that they would conflict again on television.25 It was not the situation NBA
owners wanted. They obviously wanted only one product available to the public
on television so that ratings would be strong and revenues would be high. This is
why the owners wished Saperstein and his rival league would just go away.
An NBA executive said he did not envision the ABL landing a network
contract anytime soon because "'it took us 5 years to sell it (the NBA)
nationally."'26 The same executive said that while the NBA had improved its
standing on television in recent years, the demand still wasn't great. He added,
"'The league is coming up very well, but sponsors still aren't knocking down the
doors to buy it."'27 This more than any other comment showed the NBA's
prospects in the early '60s. The league was making money, but there was no great
demand for the games. Durslag determined that the NBA received $15,000 for
each nationally televised game during the season, while the ABL received only
$1,000 from local and regional programming.
Saperstein remained undaunted, saying:
Of the thousands of basketball players coming out of college each year,
the NBA takes only a handful--maybe 25 or less. This leaves all sorts of
first-class material for us. We definitely have the product in our league.
All we need is promotion and exposure.28
However, the league never did land the network deal it sought. After the
first season, The New York Times reported that the ABL had lost $1,500,000.29
And with few of the top-name collegians ready to try it, the ABL folded in just a
year-and-a half.30 The NBA then swooped in to sign ABL stars since the league
NBA Changes Networks
However, as the 1961 season ended, the NBA again found itself on shaky
ground with television executives. Prior to the 1962 season, NBC had refused to
renew its contract with the NBA. Supposedly, it was a numbers game: NBA
ratings for Saturday afternoon games dipped to 4.8 (9 million viewers) as
compared to Sunday afternoon NFL ratings of 10.4 (15 million viewers).32 One
big reason for the ratings slip was that the NBA, in planning its schedule before the
season began, placed its three weakest teams--Chicago, Syracuse, and Detroit--on
television a total of 14 times. On the other hand, three of the best teams--Boston,
St. Louis, and Philadelphia--appeared a total of only seven times.33
Before the 1963-64 season began, there were major changes in the NBA.
The Warriors, who had the league's top gate attraction in Chamberlain, moved
from Philadelphia to San Francisco and the Western Conference for $850,000.34
The Chicago Packers, who had joined the league in 1961, changed their name to
the Zephyrs and then moved to Baltimore in midseason to become the Bullets.35
The Syracuse Nationals filled the void in Philadelphia and assumed the name of the
76ers. Now, for the first time, the NBA had all eight of its franchises in major
cities.36 Syracuse owner Biasone alluded to this when he said, "'The area just does
not have enough population to enable a major team to flourish.'"37 When the
season began, the league was back on network television thanks to the assistance
of a new commissioner.
Maurice Podoloff, the league's first and only commissioner since 1946, was
replaced by Walter Kennedy. Kennedy had been an NBA publicity man and he
retired from his post as mayor of Stamford, Connecticut, to accept the job of
commissioner. Reportedly, the first question Kennedy was asked in his first
interview for the position was, "Do you think you can get us back on national
TV?"38 Roone Arledge, the president of ABC sports at the time, was looking for
programming that could diminish the ratings of "CBS Sports Spectacular", and
give Arledge's program "Wide World of Sports" a boost with sponsors.
Arledge's idea was to place live programming in competition with CBS' taped
events.39 Hence, a relationship with the NBA was forged.
The league experimented that season, out of necessity, with becoming the
first sports league to air games during prime time on a national level in America.40
The result would be 11 weeks on 60 stations for the NBA to peddle its product, a
move that other sports leagues would no doubt be watching closely.41 ABC paid a
mere $650,000 for the rights annually, which showed how much of a struggle the
league was having on television.42 Ratings crept upward, from a 6.0 in 1965 to an
8.2 in 1968, as basketball began to gain something of a foothold on television (see
NBA ratings improved as the '60s wore on. It was reported in Advertising
Age that in 1966 there was a 26 percent increase in average audience per minute of
3,964,000 homes.43 The article in Advertising Age stated that ABC touted NBA
telecasts as the most efficient sports buy for advertisers in television.44 Attendance
had risen steadily in the previous four years, and in the first four weeks of the 1966
season it jumped 35 percent.45
The NBA expanded in 1966-67, adding a franchise in the potent media
market of Chicago, the Bulls. It was reported in Advertising Age that the Bulls
had already reported several sellouts for their first season.46 Due to all the success
the NBA was enjoying, the league expanded again one year later. In 1967-68, the
NBA added two more expansion franchises, the Seattle Supersonics and the San
Diego Rockets.47 The Knicks moved into a new and larger Madison Square
Garden; seating 19,500, and the Lakers moved into the new 17,500-seat Forum
built by new owner Jack Kent Cooke. In addition, the league's new television
contract with ABC now was worth almost $1 million a year.48
There was also another franchise relocation in the NBA in 1968. Bob
Kerner, the owner of the St. Louis Hawks, had watched as his team struggle
financially while playing in a 9,000-seat arena.49 Kerner was quoted as saying,
"'They (St. Louis) just don't want our product here anymore."'50 So Kerner sold
his team and the Hawks moved to Atlanta, their fourth home (after Tri-Cities,
Milwaukee, and St. Louis).51
The prosperity the league was enjoying was not lost on several outside
observers, who formed a new rival league called the ABA. The ABA established
franchises in major cities that had been spurned by the NBA. Dallas, Denver,
Houston, and Oakland were some of the original members of the 11-team league.
The ABA gained instant credibility when it named NBA legend George Mikan as
the first commissioner and when NBA star Rick Barry signed with the Oakland
Oaks.52 According to Leonard Koppett of The New York Times, the ABA also
received equal treatment from newspapers as the NBA.53
As the 1968-69 season began, there were more changes in store for the
NBA, as well as the ABA. Two more expansion teams, the Phoenix Suns and the
Milwaukee Bucks, joined the NBA.54 A coin toss that the Milwaukee Bucks won
ended in the drafting of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the most highly
touted rookie in years. The only question was whether the Bucks could sign
Alcindor, because his ABA rights were given to the New York Nets in an effort to
boost the league's prime market.55
The signing of Alcindor would have been a major coup for the ABA and a
major loss for the NBA, but Alcindor was offered more money initially by the
Bucks and he opted to play in the NBA. Newsweek saw the failure of the ABA to
sign Alcindor as a potential death knell for the league.56 An article called "Bleak
House" stated that, "Alcindor had been the basis for ABA dreams of large
crowds,television revenues and respectability. Without him, the league remains
distinctly minor--and its leaders loud and bitter."57
Mikan resigned in July of 1969, and Jack Dolph succeeded him.58 Dolph
was a director of sports for CBS before his hiring, and ABA officials made no
secret that was one of the reasons why Dolph was hired. Jim Gardner, president of
the ABA and owner of the Carolina Cougars said, "'Jack will be out to sell our
league in TV, merchandising, new franchises and radio.'"59 Writer Sam Goldaper
noted that "The A.B.A. considers a television contract vital to its existence and the
hiring of Dolph ... may be the answer to one of their chief problems."60
Dolph did succeed in getting the ABA All-Star Game to be televised
nationwide, and it was held in Indianapolis in front of a crowd of over 11,000
people.61 However, the season's real story was in the NBA, where the Knicks,
seemingly overnight, had become championship contenders. Finally, the NBA's
marquee team was ready to lead them in the television age.
The Knicks Become Winners
The NBA had struggled in New York since the early 1950s. Then, during
the 1969-70 season, the Knicks captured the attention of basketball fans and the
national media. Lawrence Shainberg wrote about the Knick phenomenon in "A
Fan's Notes on the Amazing Knicks", which appeared in The New York Times
Magazine. Shainberg wrote that "The media, because they are a New York team,
and because the Mets excitement has left them with a lot of unattached
superlatives, are scrambling after them in frenzy."62 This sentiment was echoed in
"You Gotta Have Heart" in Newsweek, when it was written that, "The first 100
games had included .. unprecedented national exposure--aided mightily by New
York's enormous concentration of media--that had given pro basketball itsbrightest
image ever."63 Shainberg added that there were feature stories being prepared by
every national magazine, all the TV networks, most of the local TV stations.64
There were also four books being written and two more in negotiation.65
Shainberg added that the Knicks' appeal to the fans was that, "In a game of
individuals, they are a community."66 The Knicks culminated the season with a
championship, and soon writers began pondering if basketball was going to
become the "Sport of the '70s."
The 1960s had started poorly for the NBA, but by the end of the decade
the league was enjoying its greatest national recognition. However, the NBA was
expanding too rapidly, and with a rival league the talent base was spread too thin.67
Costs soared but revenues didn't, and while professional basketball in new markets
would be a tremendous asset a decade later, it was a huge burden during the
1970s.68 The league would endure a dark decade, falling so far that the NBA
Finals would be pushed into the nether regions of televised sports--tape-delay. It
would not be until the 1980s that the league could reverse itself on the tube, and
with it change its image completely.
1. James Tuite, "From Playing Field to Announcing: Then and Now," The New York Times 11
Aug. 1963, Sect. 2, p. 13.
2. ibid, p. 13.
3. Roone Arledge, "It's Sport, It's Money, It's TV," Sports Illustrated 25 April 1966, p. 103.
4. ibid, p. 103.
5. "Breaks in the Game," Newsweek 5 June 1967, p. 66.
6. Richard L. Tobin, "Time Outs and Other Nonsense in TV Sports," Saturday Review, 9
Dec. 1967, p. 58.
7. William Johnson, "TV Made It All A New Game," Sports Illustrated 22 Dec. 1969, p. 88.
8. ibid, p. 88.
9. ibid, p. 92.
10. ibid, p. 92.
11. ibid, p. 92.
12. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianaoplis: Masters Press,
13. ibid, p. 96.
14. ibid, p. 96.
15. ibid, p. 96.
16. ibid, p. 96.
17. Melvin Durslag, "Keeping One Eye on the Basket, the Other on TV," TV Guide 24 March
1962, p. 4.
18. ibid, p. 4.
19. ibid, p. 4.
20. ibid, p. 4.
21. ibid, p. 4.
22. ibid, p. 5.
23. ibid, p. 5.
24. ibid, p. 5.
25. ibid, p. 5.
26. ibid, p. 5.
27. ibid, p. 5.
28. ibid, p. 5.
29. "$1,500,000 Lost By A.B.L.," The New York Times 13 April 1962, p. 45.
30. Zander Hollander (ed.), & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 83.
31. "NBA May Try To Sign ABL Stars," The Washington Post 2 Jan. 1963, p. A21.
32. William Leggett, "Growing to Greatness", Sports Illustrated 29 Oct. 1962, p. 41.
33. ibid, p. 41.
34. "Wilt & Warriors Move to S.F. for $850,000," Los Angeles Times 24 May 1962, Part III,
35. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 88.
36. ibid, p. 88.
37. Michael Strauss, "N.B.A. Approves Syracuse Shift," The New York Times 23 May 1963,
38. Bert Randolph Sugar, The Thrill of Victory (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978), 122.
39. ibid, p. 123.
40. William Leggett, "The NBA Gets A New Image," Sports Illustrated 28 Oct. 1963, p. 31.
41. ibid, p. 31.
42. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: The Free Press, 1984), 147.
43. "Basketball Waits in Wings to Fill in Broadcast Sports Scene After Jan. 1," Advertising
Age 21 Nov. 1966, p. 3.
44. ibid, p. 4.
45. ibid, p. 4.
46. ibid, p. 4.
47. The Associated Press, "Team Will Start in 1967-68 Season," The New York Times 21
Dec. 1966, p. 50.
48. Zander Hollander (ed.), & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 100.
49. ibid, p. 104.
50. The Associated Press, "St. Louis Losing Hawks to Atlanta," The Washington Post 4 May
1968, p. D2.
51. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Press, 1989), 104.
52. ibid, 100.
53. Leonard Koppett, "The New League: Early Evaluation," The New York Times 26 Nov.
1967, p. S3.
54. "Milwaukee and Phoenix Obtain N.B.A. Franchises For Next Season," The New York
Times 23 Jan. 1968, p. 30.
55. Zander Hollander (ed.), & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 106.
56. "Bleak House," Newsweek 14 April 1969, p. 98.
57. ibid, p. 98.
58. Sam Goldaper, "Dolph, a TV Sports Executive, Named Commissioner of A.B.A.," The
New York Times 30 Oct. 1959, p. 61.
59. ibid, p. 61.
60. ibid, p. 61.
61. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 113.
62. Lawrence Shainberg, "A Fan's Note on the Amazing Knicks," The New York Times
Magazine 25 Jan. 1970, 34.
63. "You Gotta Have Heart," Newsweek 18 May 1970, p. 93.
64. Lawrence Shainberg, "A Fan's Note on the Amazing Kincks," The New York
Times Magazine 25 Jan. 1970, p. 34.
65. ibid, p. 34.
66. ibid, p. 38.
67. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
68. ibid, p. 116.
THE 1970s: A DECADE OF UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS
The New York Knicks had finally focused national attention on the NBA,
and as the 1970s started, there was optimism that the league would finally find its
niche in television. NBA ratings had been climbing steadily since the league had
signed its contract with ABC, and the NBA finally had a winner in New York.
There were new stars and better athletes than there had ever been before, but the
NBA seemed to be expanding too rapidly for its own good.
The league expanded for the third time in three years in 1970, with the
addition of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Portland. In addition to the 11 teams in the
ABA, this dilution of talent would hurt the league through much of the decade. By
the end of the 1970s, the NBA and ABA would merge, but the league's image
would be tarnished. The NBA would become so unattractive to television viewers
that by the end of the decade the Finals would languish on tape-delay, only to be
seen by basketball's true fans. Thus, a decade of promise deteriorated into a
decade of unfulfilled expectations.
The NBA expanded in 1970 to include three new teams in Buffalo,
Cleveland, and Portland. The Cincinnati Royals moved to Kansas City in 1972
because of poor attendance.1 New Orleans became the eighteenth team in 1974-
75, as the franchise's owners paid a hefty $6.15 million to NBA owners.2
However, writers saw these moves as overexpansion, that diluted the talent in the
game. Joseph Durso of The New York Times noted that the challenge of new
leagues in basketball, football, and hockey added to the problems.3 Durso
addedthat matters were worsened when money began pouring into sports from
television.4 This only added to the problems the league would be facing at the end
of the decade.
"The Sport of the 1970s"
The 1970s started well enough, with the NBA enjoying new attention
courtesy of the Knicks' championship. William Marsano of TV Guide went as far
as predicting that the game would become the sport of the '70s, much the same as
football had been the sport of the '60s.5 The big reason was television. It was
argued that basketball was a more attractive television commodity because it was a
game of constant motion.6 There was finesse and skill, as well as the occasional
touches of power, the ball was easily visible, and basketball games were never
The assimilation of college players into the NBA ranks was cited as another
reason for the league's growth potential because fans would have an interest in
following their favorite players in the pros. Also, the NBA contract for ABC was
worth only $3 million in 1969. Baseball, in contrast, cost $16.5 million and the
NFL cost CBS about $22 million--each for one season.8 This meant that ABC had
made a bargain in purchasing the rights to the NBA, considering the league's
steady ratings. But Durslag saw potential problems the league would have to
overcome to become a major league. Among these problems were erratic
officiating, agonizingly long road trips, small arenas, and the NBA's expansion
plan. These problems, as well as the threat of a merger with the ABA, were seen
as potential cripplers. Of course, all of these problems were related to television,
where the fans could see for themselves the quality of arenas, officiating and play
between two road-weary teams. Durslag's concerns would become prophetic as
the NBA experienced a difficult decade on television.
Commissioner Walter Kennedy openly discussed the impact television had
on the NBA in the TV Guide article, "They'll Move on to Athens .. If They Ever
Get Cleveland Straightened Out." In the article Kennedy predicted that "in 10
years the NBA will have four teams in Europe playing full schedules."9 This,
Kennedy said, would be possible only through television, the same way Americans
picked up the jump shot and behind-the-back dribble when the NBA was first
broadcast in 1952.10 Kennedy also discussed how the league's ratings had
improved its standing with ABC.
In 1972, John Carol refuted the claim that basketball would be the "Sport
of the '70s," in "TV Talk" in Sports Illustrated. Carol cited that football ratings
had improved by 10 percent since 1971, while basketball ratings, despite a slight
increase, had slipped relative to other attractions.11 Carol noted that there was a
thin profit margin for ABC's NBA telecasts, and he wrote that the network was
considering adjustments to change that. Regional coverage was a possibility, since
it had worked so well for football, but the costs go up with each game added.
Carol also contrasted the NBA's television problems with college basketball's
booming ratings. He also wrote there was another development in basketball
punctured the myth of it becoming the sport of the decade. That came when the
ABA had to cancel a series it had planned amongst four of its best franchises--
Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia.12 The reason given for the cancellation
was a lack of sponsors.13
Criticisms of Coverage
As the 1970s began, ABC began to come under fire for what some saw as
its less-than-spectacular presentation of the NBA. This problem would persist
throughout the decade, even as the NBA changed networks. Frank Deford, in "TV
Talk" in Sports Illustrated, wrote in 1971 that, "It is unlikely that sport has ever
been presented so dismally in prime time as it was in this year's coverage of the
NBA championships on ABC."14 Chris Shenkel, ABC's play-by-play man, was
criticized by Deford for his failure to appreciate the nuances of the game.15 Deford
also criticized ABC for its halftime shows, of which he wrote, "Since ABC offered
nothing innovative or imaginative to fill these voids, the result was a series of
dreary courtside exchanges, many in the form of congratulations and compliments
from people like the NBA commissioner and various club owners."16
Deford also wrote that ABC's mistake was that it covered an NBA game
the same way it covered a football game. This was the same criticism Roone
Arledge had made a few years earlier in an article he had written in Sports
Illustrated. Deford, like Arledge, believed that covering basketball in the same
way as football was a mistake because they were two different games. Because
much of what happened in basketball occurred away from the ball, it was important
in Deford's mind that ABC provide the necessary insight into the game's subtleties.
Instead, Deford wrote that neither ABC's announcers nor cameras were
able to isolate the important phases of the game, and that replays were used only to
second-guess officials rather than "capture the grace and precision of the
performers."17 Dave Kindred agreed with Deford's assessment about the subtleties
of the game being lost in television in an article in The Washington Post called,
"Tube Boob Can't Cope With NBA; Subtleties Too Rich for TV." Kindred added
that too much happened too quickly during the course of a game, and the speed at
which the game was played did not allow for much reflection.18
At the end of the 1973-74 season, CBS and the NBA agreed to a 3-year,
$27 million contract (see Appendix B). ABC, which had nurtured the NBA back
to respectability, was outraged. The network took the NBA to court but lost,
charging that the NBA had not negotiated "in good faith".19 Arledge shot back by
counterprogramming his "Wide World of Sports" on Sunday against CBS' NBA
The NBA may have changed networks, but the criticisms of network
coverage persisted. William Leggett commented on what observers felt was CBS'
mishandling of NBA telecasts in an article called, "Slam-Dunked By the Ratings" in
Sports Illustrated. Leggett wrote that NBA telecasts had become an "unpleasant
exercise" with the playing of so much loud music, the hiring and firing of so many
announcers that viewers got no feeling of stability; a pregame show that consisted
of mini-teams of celebrities and active and former NBA players competing against
each other; and a halftime show called "Horse".21 Even NBA players such as Bob
Lanier agreed that there should have been a continuity of announcers, so fans could
relate to them.22
John Papanek also criticized CBS' coverage of the NBA in a Sports
Illustrated article called, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA." Papanek
indicted CBS for "treating its telecasts as little more than a bridge between a
refrigerator race and a golf tournament"23 Papanek also criticized the network for
televising a slew of regional games instead of one big national game, thus
fragmenting the ratings even further. He also wrote that CBS had erred by billing
games as players against players rather than teams, such as "Dr. J vs. Rick Barry",
and "David Thompson vs. Pistol Pete."24 Also, according to Papanek, there was
too much attention focused on the slam dunk, with replay after replay
demonstrating the action.25 Papanek also agreed with Leggett's observation that
CBS' halftime shows were devoted to slamdunk or Horse contests and needed to
CBS Struggles to Improve Coverage
The NBA took notice of the criticism and managed to persuade CBS to
eliminate its halftime show and replace it with human-interest shows about the
players.27 There also was a possibility that CBS would start televising a single
national game on Sunday afternoons. CBS also tried to reverse the NBA's
declining ratings with a variety of adjustments.
William Leggett reported in "Basketfuls of Information" in Sports
Illustrated that the network first hired a reporter named Sonny Hill to cover the
league on a full-time basis.28 CBS also put microphones and cameras on team
huddles to allow viewers to see and hear coaches at work.29 Leggett reported that
those attempts to present the game were for the most part unsuccessful, but it
proved that CBS was on the right track.30 Leggett also analyzed CBS' latest move
to improve its coverage, a halftime segment called "Red Auerbach on Roundball",
featuring the legendary Celtic coach. Auerbach's task, according to Leggett, was
to: 1) strive to educate CBS' viewers about the complexities of the pro game,
2) attempt to teach young players how to improve their games, 3) subtly introduce
audiences to an all-star team based on Red's criteria on facets of the game such as
screening and passing.31 Leggett went on to blame CBS' low ratings for the NBA
on its announcers, former greats Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson, whom he
called "less than brilliant".32
In 1977, the NBA mounted a short-lived comeback in the ratings
department. NBA telecasts on CBS went head-to-head with college basketball
telecasts on NBC. William Leggett, in "Bushels of Baskets on Sunday" in Sports
Illustrated, wrote that the early returns showed that CBS was winning the ratings
war.33 Leggett wrote that one of the reasons for the NBA's good showing was that
its recent contract with CBS was the most liberal ever between a network and
a major league.34 This was because CBS was able to regionalize its telecasts (up to
six games on Sundays), or run one national game if it felt the matchup warranted
national coverage.35 CBS also could stage doubleheaders and switch from a one-
sided game to a close one. Leggett speculated that all of those changes would
preclude the network showing any meaningless games that had been scheduled far
However, the ratings improvement did not last long, because just one year
later, NBA ratings had plummeted. Leggett reported that after the 1977 NBA
Finals between Philadelphia and Portland had achieved record NBA ratings, CBS
had seen a sharp decline in 1978.37 The results were seen in the 1978 NBA Finals,
when ratings declined 22 percent.38
Leggett also noted that certain observers predicted that if ratings did not
rise sharply in the next season, professional basketball could go the way hockey did
on NBC and the NBA may eventually have found itself without a lucrative
television contract.39 Leggett also cited as an example of NBA problems the fact
that the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, WAGA-TV, did not carry any NBA games and
hadn't for the previous five years.40 This occurred despite the fact the city had an
NBA franchise in the Atlanta Hawks.
Leggett also noted that in a Variety issue that listed the top 730 rated
shows from September 1, 1977 to August 31, 1978, sports took four of the first
five spots and six of the top nine. However, the deciding game of the NBA Finals
tied for 442nd with such forgettable shows as Peter Lundy & the Medicine Hat
Stallion, The Hostage Heart, and Country Night of the Stars.41 The next-highest
NBA prime-time playoff game was only 619th.42 The merger was supposed to
give the NBA new life by adding new stars and raising the quality of play.
However, as the 1970s drew to a close, the NBA was in desperate trouble
on television. By the late 1970s attendance for NBA games had plummeted, as
had the league's television ratings. Ratings for NBA telecasts were down 26
percent from the previous year.43 Things were so bad for CBS that the first
regular-season telecast was beaten soundly by everything the other networks had
to offer, such as boxing (ABC) and college basketball (NBC).44 Leggett and other
writers offered several reasons for the NBA's declining television fortunes.
Leggett first cited that in five of the nation's major television markets--New
York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston--the teams were either
"dull and faceless" or not contenders.45 He added that the sixth, Philadelphia, had a
troubled season and was eliminated before the playoffs ended.46 Critics posed that
one reason for the poor ratings was that there were weak teams in the major media
markets. This was especially damaging when those markets were already saturated
with local teams in high school and college basketball. The NBA tried to assist
CBS by allowing the network to choose any game it wanted to broadcast, but too
often it was small market teams like the Portland Trail Blazers that were in the
playoffs or won the championship.47
The argument was valid to an extent, because pro football had taken off
after the New York Jets won the Super Bowl. However, in the years since then,
the Jets and the New York Giants had struggled while the NFL remained popular.48
This occurred at the same time as the Knicks' fortunes had declined, and the NBA's
television fortunes declined with them. Leggett also cited criticism from observers
that there was a basic flaw in the structure of the game which allowed the casual
viewer to enjoy the essence of any NBA game by simply watching the game's final
two minutes.49 This was the same criticism the NBA had faced since the 1960s,
when Roone Arledge attempted to refute it in another
Sports Illustrated article. Benjamin Rader also cited this criticism in his book, In
Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports.
Leggett added that it seemed that there was too much basketball on
television. NBC aired Saturday college doubleheaders, and on Sundays CBS
carried NBA doubleheaders.50 Also, most independent stations aired both local
professional and college games.51 This resulted in CBS trying something new to
pull up its ratings. The first two games of the 1978 Conference Finals were aired
at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to test the waters.52 However, the problems
ran deeper than network competition and lack of interest in the large market teams.
The NBA was also suffering from image problems.
NBA Image Problems
The NBA's decline on television resulted in the rehashing of old questions
about the league's problems. Writers began calling for the league to shorten its
season, since televised games were being oversaturated with poor performances.
For example, Al Stump cited the poor play of the Los Angeles Lakers in a
nationally televised blowout loss to the Bucks during the 1972-73 season in an
article called, "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?" Stump added that "within
today's 17-team, country-beating schedule, poor play is frequent."'53 According to
Sam Goldaper, the players were also critical when it came to the league's
scheduling of televised games. One player, Bob Lanier, said that college games
aired on television were usually the best ones of the week. He also said that it was
"unfair and improper" to put a Sunday afternoon game on with tired players. This
was because of teams having to play a game on Saturday and then travel for an
afternoon game the following day. This resulted in a poor product.54 Stump's
solution, of course, was to call for the NBA to shorten its schedule.
Dave Kindred agreed that the NBA season was too long. He wrote that
with 82 regular season games, a single game was rendered meaningless in the
overall scheme of the season.55 Kindred also reasoned that if no one watched the
NBA during the regular season, why would they watch the playoffs.56 Like others
before him, Kindred felt that a 60-game season would make the games more
interesting and dramatic for viewers to watch. John Papanek also believed that the
season was too long, and that with so many teams, a team could play a different
team each night, greatly reducing the prospect of a rivalry. The times when a Wilt
Chamberlain would battle a Bill Russell 10 times a year were gone, so there was
very little drama left in the season.57 These were just some of the reasons critics
tried to come up with to explain the league's shortcomings on television.
There was also the belief that escalating player salaries and increased player
movement was adversely affecting the NBA on television. Melvin Durslag wrote
in a TV Guide article called, "Masters of the Fast Break", that several players were
moving constantly and thus fans were left having to identify with new players from
season to season. As an example, he cited that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had decided
he no longer wanted to play for Milwaukee in 1975, and he was traded to the
Lakers for four players.58 Durslag also noted that the owners were paying players
and coaches outrageous salaries that, when coupled with player gripes, served to
further alienate fans.59 This alienation was believed to have affected even TV
It was confounding for Durslag to see that the league was in decline at a
time when the game was being played with more skill than ever before.60 Julius
Erving felt he had been promised a salary increase form Nets' owner Roy Boe, but
when Boe refused to pay Erving demanded to be traded. So Boe traded him to the
Philadelphia 76ers for the hefty price of $3 million for five years.61 This situation
was indicative of the theory that NBA players were too greedy. Despite the
problems, the NBA was able to re-sign with CBS in 1976 for two years and $21
million (see Appendix B).
Benjamin Rader wrote that among the problems the league had players
were so big and blessed with such offensive skills that scoring became too easy.62
When the NBA allowed for more physical contact to combat this, the league
suffered to find the right balance between finesse and physicality.63 There was also
criticism that race played a factor in the NBA's problems.
The NBA in 1978-79 was almost 75 percent black, and John Papanek
speculated that could be a reason for the league's poor showing on television.64
Rader made the same assessment in his book, In Its Own Image: How Television
Has Transformed Sports. Seattle player Paul Silas, also the president of the
Players' Association, argued that whites generally looked disfavorably on blacks
who were making large amounts of money if it appeared they were not working
hard to make that money.65 Golden State coach Al Attles said that many people
when describing the NBA style of play had called it "undisciplined", which led him
to believe the finger was being pointed at a specific group of people. Whatever the
reason, the NBA had a major image problem in the late 1970s, one that
Commissioner O'Brien sought to change by hiring an outside agency to handle the
NBA's public relations.
In 1979, Sam Goldaper wrote in The New York Times about the changes
players had requested in light of the NBA's declining attendance figures and
television ratings.66 Representatives of the league's 22 teams met and argued that
there was a need for better officiating and improved training of officials. Goldaper
reported that the President of the Players' Association said that instant replays on
television were showing the number of calls officials missed. He felt that this left
the fan with the feeling that the game was being totally dominated by the officials,
and the players wanted that concept to change.67
The ABA was enduring some difficult times of its own, and the upstart
league would not finish the decade. First, Jack Dolph, the former television
executive whom the league had hired to secure a network contract, resigned on Jun
3, 1972. Dolph said it was because of the impending merger between the two
leagues.68 The Times reported that Dolph had succeeded in lifting the league to
respectability.69 Leonard Koppett of The New York Times argued that the ABA
failed to land a network television deal because of its demographic problems.
Specifically, Koppett wrote that the ABA had only one of its teams--the New York
Nets--in a major media market.70 He contrasted this with the fact that major league
baseball, the NFL, and the NBA had all of their teams in the major markets.71
Koppett wrote that without the major markets, there was little to induce television
outlets in those markets to carry the games.72 In effect, Koppett said that if ABA
teams did not move into larger cities, than the league would die.73
Frank Deford cited the league's inability to establish teams in major cities as
a primary reason the ABA failed to secure a national television contract.74 The
ABA hired seven commissioners during its short history, all served with trying to
create a merger with the NBA or to obtain a national television contract.75 None of
the commissioners succeeded, except for the last one, Dave DeBusschere. Unable
to land a successful television contract, the ABA watched as two of its most
successful teams, New York and Denver, applied for membership in the NBA on
September 24, 1975.76 The remaining teams in the league applied for member ship
on October 21st of that year.77
Bob Wussler, president of CBS, renegotiated a new television contract with
the NBA that would give the league $21 million in the first two years and $22
million for the final two years.78 The network also offered the NBA an additional
$5 million as an incentive if up to four new franchises from the ABA were accepted
by the NBA.79 Wussler said that there were certain ABA teams that CBS would
have liked to see in the NBA.80 He cited in particular the Denver Nuggets with
David Thompson, and the New York Nets with Julius Erving.81 Wussler also said
that he felt the problem with the NBA ratings was that the "'superstars weren't super
enough and the super teams did not play up to expectations'".82 Wussler added that
he did not feel that the ABA was strong enough by itself to warrant a television
contract.83 Goldaper noted that regular-season ratings for the NBA were down 28
percent and between 10 and 15 percent for the playoffs.84
On June 18, 1976, NBA owners voted 17-1 to merge with the ABA.85 The
Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs all joined
the league.86 The remaining teams were disbanded, with all of their players entering
the NBA's dispersal draft.87 Also, the incoming ABA teams were not allowed to
share in the network television deal for the next four years.88 However, when CBS
and the NBA renegotiated their contract for the 1978-79 season, the ABA teams
were allowed to share in it, despite the fact they would receive only $116,000 a year
for the first two years of a four-year, $74 million contract.89 In the final two years
of the contract, the four teams would share equally with the rest of the NBA.90 As
compensation for entering the same market as the Knicks, the New York Nets were
forced to pay the Knicks an additional $4 million.91
The 1970s was a decade of regression for the NBA's television fortunes.
The success of the Knicks pumped life into the league, and great things were
expected. But the battles with the ABA and the retirement of NBA stars and the
rapid expansion diluted the talent and the interest in the game. Then, when the two
leagues finally did merge, the league was faced with more teams and fewer
matchups between historic rivals for the season. There was also alienation of
television viewers due to the quality of play and the fact that fans were unable to
identify with the players. Finally, there was criticism of the way CBS handled NBA
telecasts, as well as the charge that the league was "too black" for White America to
embrace it. It all added up to poor ratings, so poor that in 1977-78 the decisive
championship game of the NBA was rated 442nd, while the World Series and the
Super Bowl took six of the top nine spots on prime time television.92 The NBA
would continue to flounder into the early 1980s, until new stars, and two old
championship rivals, would save the league again.
1. United Press International, "Cincinnati NBA Team Going to Kansas City," The Chicago
Tribune, 15 Mar. 1972, Sect. 3, p. 6.
2. Bob Logan, "New Orleans gets N.B.A. Franchise," The Chicago Tribune 8 Mar. 1974,
Sect. 3, p. 1.
3. Joseph Durso, "Overexpansion Continues to Haunt N.B.A. and N.H.L.," The New York
Times 13 July 1977, p. A15.
4. ibid, p. A15.
5. William Marsano, "Will It Be the Game of the 1970s?" TV Guide 4 April 1970, p. 14.
6. ibid, p. 15.
7. ibid, p. 15.
8. ibid, p. 15.
9. Walter Kennedy, "They'll Move To Athens ... If They Ever Get Cleveland Straightened
Out," TV Guide 6 March 1971, p. 54.
10. ibid, p. 55.
11. John Carol, "TV Talk," Sports Illustrated 13 Mar. 1972, p. 9.
12. ibid, p. 9.
13. ibid, p. 9.
14. Frank Deford, "TV Talk," Sports Illustrated 24 May 1971, p. 16.
15. ibid, p. 16.
16. ibid, p. 16.
17. ibid, p. 16.
18. Dave Kindred, "Tube Boob Can't Cope With NBA; Subtleties Too Rich For
TV," The Washington Post 3 June 1979, p. Gl.
19. "C.B.S., N.B.A. Agree; A.B.C. Doesn't," The New York Times, 9 Mar. 1973, p. 32.
20. Bert Randolph Sugar, The Thrill of Victory (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978), 124.
21. William Leggett, "Slam Dunked By the Ratings," Sports Illustrated 16 Oct. 1978, p. 67.
22. Sam Goldaper, "N.B.A. Players Are Requesting Sweeping Changes," The New York
Times 8 Feb. 1979, p. D18, col. 3.
23. John Papanek, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA," Sports Illustrated 26 Feb.
1979, p. 21.
24. ibid, p. 27.
25. ibid, p. 27.
26. ibid, p. 27.
27. ibid, p. 27.
28. William Leggett, "Basketfuls of Information," Sports Illustrated 9 Feb, 1976, p. 48.
29. ibid, p. 48.
30. ibid, p. 48.
31. ibid, p. 48.
32. ibid, p. 48.
33. William Leggettt, "Bushels of Baskets on Sunday," Sports Illustrated 31 Jan. 1977, p. 37.
34. ibid, p. 37.
35. ibid, p. 37.
36. ibid, p. 37.
37. William Leggett, "Slam Dunked By the Ratings," Sports Illustrated 16 Oct. 1978, p. 67.
38. ibid, p. 67.
39. ibid, p. 67.
40. ibid, p. 67.
41. ibid, p. 67.
42. ibid, p. 67.
43. John Papanek, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA," Sports Illustrated
26 Feb. 1979, p. 20.
44. ibid, p. 20.
45. William Leggett, "Slam Dunked by the Ratings," Sports Illustrated 16 Oct. 1978, p. 67.
46. ibid, p. 67.
47. Benjamin G. Rader, In its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: The Free Press, 1984), 148.
48. John Papanek, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA," Sports Illustrated 26 Feb.
1979, p. 20.
49. William Leggett, "Slam Dunked By the Ratings," Sports Illustrated 16 Oct. 1978, 67.
50. ibid, p. 67.
51. ibid, p. 67.
52. ibid, p. 67.
53. Al Stump, "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?" TV Guide 21 April 1973, p. 25.
54. Sam Goldaper, "N.B.A. Players Are Requesting Sweeping Changes," The New York
Times 8 Feb. 1979, p. D18, col. 3.
55. Dave Kindred, "Tube Boob Can't Cope With NBA; Subtleties Too Rich for TV," The
Washington Post 3 June 1979, p. GI.
56. ibid, p. Gl.
57. John Papanek, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA," Sports Illustrated 26 Feb.
1979, p. 21.
58. Melvin Durslag, "Masters of the Fast Break," TV Guide 27 March 1976, p. 21.
59. ibid, p. 21.
60. ibid, p. 21.
61. Pete Axthelm, "Why Pro Basketball is Sick," Newsweek 22 Nov. 1976, p. 87.
62. Benjamin G. Rader, In its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: The Free Press, 1984), 148.
63. ibid, p. 148.
64. John Papanek, "There's An Ill Wind Blowing for the NBA," Sports Illustrated 26 Feb.
1979, p. 27.
65. ibid, p. 22.
66. Sam Goldaper, "N.B.A. Players Are Requesting Sweeping Changes," The New York
Times 8 Feb. 1979, p. D15.
67. ibid, p. D18, column 3.
68. "Dolph, Head of A.B.A., To Step Down in Fall," The New York Times 3 June
1972, p. 25.
69. ibid, p. 25.
70. Leonard Koppett, "A.B.A. Flunks its Demography Test," The New York Times 26 May
1974, Section 5, p. 1.
71. ibid, p. 1.
72. ibid, p. 3, column 1.
73. ibid, p. 3, column 1.
74. Frank Deford, "One Last Hurrah in Hyannis," Sports Illustrated 28 June 1976, p. 64.
75. Sam Goldaper, "DeBusschere to Head A.B.A.," The New York Times 15 May 1975, p.
76. The Associated Press, "ABA Teams Apply for NBA Switch," The Washington Post 21
Oct. 1975, p. Bl.
77. ibid, p. B 1.
78. Sam Goldaper, "N.B.A. Gets Merger 'Spur'," The New York Times 25 May 1976, p. 30.
79. ibid, p. 30.
80. ibid, p. 30.
81. ibid, p. 30.
82. ibid, p. 30.
83. ibid, p. 30.
84. ibid, p. 30.
85. David DuPree, "NBA Owners Vote 17-1 to Merge With ABA," The Washington Post 18
June 1976, p. Dl.
86. ibid, p. Dl.
87. ibid, p. Dl.
88. ibid, p. Dl.
89. Sam Goldaper, "Boe Gets Windfall From TV," The New York Times 5 May 1978, p. A19.
90. ibid, p. A20.
91. Frank Deford, "One Last Hurrah in Hyannis," Sports Illustrated 28 June 1976, p. 64.
92. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: Free Press, 1984), 147.
THE 1980s: A DECADE OF PROSPERITY
The 1970s were a disappointing decade for the NBA on television. Instead
of advancing, which the league felt it would after the Knicks championship in 1970,
the NBA suffered a setback on television. Despite the fact CBS had re-signed with
the NBA for the league's most lucrative television contract to date in 1978, and
despite the fact the ABA and NBA had finally merged, the league was still
struggling with its image problem. NBA regular season games were consistently
avoided by television viewers, and the playoffs, once the only games viewers
watched, were ignored as well.1 Even the NBA Finals felt the chill; the decade
ended with the Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics battling for a title on
tape-delay.2 The NBA did not reverse this trend until the mid-'80s, and it was due
to several factors that the NBA was able to right itself on television.
Bird and Magic
The reversal in NBA fortunes did not come instantly though, it was a
gradual process that started with the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in
1979. Bird had been drafted in 1978 by the Celtics, and when he left Indiana State a
year later he signed with the legendary franchise that had recently fallen on hard
times.3 Johnson had completed his sophomore season at Michigan State when he
declared his intentions to enter the NBA draft. He was drafted first by the Lakers,
and Boston and Los Angeles became league powers again.
Bird and Johnson had proven their television potential in the 1979 NCAA
finals, when the two faced off for the championship. The result was the highest
rated championship game ever, despite the increased media hype in subsequent
years.4 The pair proved their worth in the NBA as well. Bird lifted the Celtics to a
61-21 record in 1979, a 32-game improvement over the previous season.5 His
contributions earned him Rookie-of-the Year honors for that season.6 Johnson did
not hit his stride until the playoffs, when, while subbing for an injured Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar at center, he scored 42 points, had 15 rebounds, and 7 assists as the
Lakers won the championship over Philadelphia.7 Johnson became the first rookie
ever to be named NBA Finals MVP, and the Bird-Johnson era had begun.
However, few noticed Johnson's performance until the following day,
because CBS had again decided that the game would be aired on tape-delay outside
of Philadelphia and Los Angeles. This caused much consternation for the NBA.
The league's regular-season ratings were not spectacular either. The NBA had a
regular-season rating of 6.4 during 1980, compared with an 8.2 average for college
games and 7.4 for The Superstars on NBC.8
The NBA Makes Changes
The problem with the television schedule was so great that the NBA and
CBS compromised before the 1981-82 season. For that year, the NBA would start
its season three weeks later than usual and CBS would guarantee to televise all of
the championship games live.9 The late season start meant the Finals would not
begin until June, when the May sweeps were over.10 Also, the NBA would avoid
competing head-to-head with the World Series by virtue of its later start.
The league was also intent on changing its image, and this involved changing
some of its more puzzling rules.1 Thomas Rogers in "N.B.A. Eliminates Bonus
Free Throws" in The New York Times, reported that the rule changes were made "in
an effort to speed up the game."12 Before the 81-82 season started, the NBA ruled
that a free-throw shooter could no longer take three free throw to make two, or two
to make one.13 Fouling in the backcourt wouldbe treated as a common foul, which
would encourage the college strategy of the full-court press.14 Bruce Newman
wrote in "The NBA Goes Back to School" in Sports Illustrated that this style of
basketball was seen as more enthusiastic and more fun to watch for the fans.15 The
NBA also instituted the "illegal defense" rule, which would prevent teams from
double-teaming a player before he received the ball. This rule change allowed
athletes like Dr. J and David Thompson more room to take their defender off the
dribble and create more crowd-pleasing moves.16
However, the old criticisms of what was wrong with the NBA were not
entirely eliminated. There remained the speculation that the season needed to be
shortened to 60 games to allow NBA teams to deliver the highest quality of
basketball to the public.17 In addition, with the playoffs starting later than ever, the
season would become interminable. As always in the NBA, new solutions did not
always answer all of the league's critics.
One way CBS sought to answer the interminable season criticism was to
greatly reduce the number of NBA regular-season telecasts. In 1982-83, CBS
reduced the number of regular-season telecasts from 18 the previous year to 4.18
CBS officials' reason for limiting the telecasts was also practical. Cable television
was carrying a large number of regular-season games, and CBS executives felt the
public was being oversaturated with telecasts. The 1979-80 season had seen the
league sign its first deal with a cable network, USA, for 3 years and $1.5 million
(see Appendix B). In 1982-83, USA shared those rights with ESPN for $11 million
over two years.
The biggest reason CBS had for limiting the number of telecasts was the
ratings. In 1976, CBS regular-season ratings were an abysmal 26 percent share on
Sunday afternoons, by 1980 that number had fallen to 18 percent.19 Despite the
poor ratings, CBS again re-signed with the NBA to a four-year, $88 million
contract (see Appendix B).
While the NBA was still struggling with its ratings, there was talk amongst
NBA executives that the situation was improving. USA and ESPN televised 40
games during the season, and the NBA also had its many connections to local cable
systems.20 Also, CBS would televise as many playoff games as it had in years past,
with a maximum of 23.21 In addition, the NHL had lost its network contract in
1976, and by 1983 it still had not landed a new one.22 The NBA had at least
maintained a relationship with television.
The Resurgence of the NBA
By the time the 1983-84 season had arrived, the NBA was beginning to gain
in popularity. The NBA was the only major sports league, the NFL included, that
had gained in its TV audience, up 12 percent for the 1981-83 period.23 CBS'
strategy of limiting the number of regular-season telecasts had paid off. Only seven
games were telecast for the 1983-84 season, and there were 16 games telecast in the
playoffs.24 In addition, there were 10 playoff telecasts on USA and another 10 on
ESPN.25 The NBA also benefitted from the labor strife that had impacted the NFL
and baseball. In 1981 a baseball strike wiped out half of the regular season, and in
1982 a strike limited the NFL regular season to just seven games.26 The
NBA was filling the void, just as it had when the point-shaving scandals in college
basketball during the early fifties had first launched the league into prominence.
Another reason for the NBA's resurgence was its superstars. By 1983,
Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were joined by Larry Bird and Magic
Johnson as bona fide superstars. They were also different kinds of superstars that
appealed to different viewers. Johnson personified a person having fun with his job
and Bird represented work ethic.27 Dr. J was the symbol of grace and dignity as
well as the ambassador of basketball, and Abdul-Jabbar was quiet consistence and
excellence.28 This divergence of personalities brought the NBA into a golden age of
prosperity, and the results were seen at the conclusion of the 1983-84 season.
Ever since Bird and Johnson's arrival in 1979, the Celtics and Lakers had
become the two best teams in basketball (with the exception of Dr. J and the
Philadelphia 76ers). Since that season, the Lakers and Celtics had won every
championship except one (again, the 76ers, in 1982-83). Yet the two teams had
never met in the Finals during that period. That would change in 1984. That year,
the Celtics and Lakers finally met for the championship, and the result was one of
the most dramatic Finals ever played. The series went all seven games, and the
seventh game attracted the largest television audience ever for an NBA game.29
This series, and the two future meetings between the Celtics and the Lakers in the
Finals would be pivotal in stimulating the NBA's popularity explosion. In 1987, the
Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals would produce the highest ratings in NBA history, not
to be eclipsed until the Jordan era in the 1990s.30
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the NBA became the fastest-growing and most
financially successful league in team sports.31 The league's negative image was
forgotten, as the NBA produced more stars than the NFL or baseball did. Johnson
and Bird emerged as the two best-known athletes in the nation, and in the 1990s
Michael Jordan would eclipse them both and replace Muhammad Ali as the best-
known athlete in the world.32
NBA marketing was critical in forming the foundation for the league's
success, but the credit also largely went to another man. That man was new
Commissioner David Stem. David Stem was a successful 41-year old attorney who
had been Commissioner Larry O'Brien's second-in-command and had joined
the NBA as league counsel in 1978.33 Stem's first order of business was to institute
a salary cap that would allowed players and owners to share in the league's
television and attendance revenue.34 This allowed the owners and players to get
richer, and it prevented the rich teams from spending more for players than the poor
ones did.35 The NBA also confronted the allegations of league-wide drug abuse by
drafting one of the most comprehensive drug policies in sports.36 Stern also
oversaw a tremendous expansion in the marketing of NBA players, a strategy that
would make the league's biggest stars the most popular athletes by the end of the
decade.37 Almost as importantly, Stem solved the NBA's television dilemma of
maximizing ratings by limiting the number of broadcasts.
With the proliferation of cable channels in the early 1980s and the presence
of satellite-fed "superstations" like WGN in Chicago and WTBS in Atlanta, the
NBA was faced with an oversaturation of its product.38 In 1983-84 alone, 170
games were broadcast nationally, including CBS' modest 10-game regular-season
schedule.39 The result was that CBS' telecasts were weakened by the fact that there
was a game on television almost every night.40 Stem knew that this impaired the
league's ability to sell the right to broadcast the games nationally, so he reduced the
league schedule on cable to only 55 games starting in the 1984-85 season.41
The rights to telecast these games were sold to WTBS for $20 million over
two years. In addition, the superstation would also be allowed to televise 20 early-
round games of the playoffs.42 This reduction, more than any other reason,
explained why the NBA's network ratings had improved over the five years previous
to 1985-86.43 This was a claim that no other sports league--professional or
CBS took note of the improved ratings, and before the 1986-87 season the
network negotiated with the NBA to a 4-year, $173 million contract, the largest in
league history. CBS executive Ted Shaker commented on how far the NBA had
come on television, when he was asked about whether the network wanted to resign
with the NBA for the '86-'87 season: "'Are you kidding? Absolutely."'44 That
comment showed how far the league had come since the early part of the decade.
In 1980, the league was floundering on television. The regular-season games were
being hammered in the ratings, and the Finals were reduced to being shown on tape-
delay. In 1985, the league signed its most lucrative contract for television, and its
revenues had increased during that same span from $108 million to $192 million.45
Another reason for the league's improved standing on television was the
influx of a new generation of stars that, when complemented with Bird, Johnson,
Dr. J, and Abdul-Jabbar, thrust the league into a golden age of prosperity. During
the first few years of the 1980s, players like Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, and
Clyde Drexler entered the NBA, and they lifted formerly poor teams in Detroit,
Atlanta, and Portland to respectability. But the league's biggest star arrived in
1984, Michael Jordan.
Jordan was an All-American 6-6 guard from North Carolina. He had won
an NCAA Championship in college as well as the Player of the Year award twice.46
In 1984, he led the United States Olympic team to the gold medal in Spain.47 That
same year, he was part of a draft class that included Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles
Barkley, two other future NBA legends.
Jordan was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bulls, another weak
team in a large media market. The early reviews of Jordan were good. Jane Gross
wrote that "Jordan's high-wire act. drew howls at Madison Square Garden and
has drawn crowds at practice sessions."48 Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune
added, "His (Jordan's) presence accounted for the Bulls nearly doubling their
attendance from the previous year."49 Jordan drew comparisons to Julius Erving
and Magic Johnson during his first season, which proved that writers were aware of
his talent from the beginning. He won Rookie of the Year honors in his first season
and created a sensation with his athletic feats.50 In his second season he dazzled
Boston Garden with a playoff-record 63 points in a playoff game against the
Celtics.51 Jordan led the league in scoring during every season in the 1980s except
one, the 1985-86 season when he was injured.52 He won the league's MVP award
and Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987-88.53 He became the league's most
dominant player by the end of the decade, but in the 1990s Jordan would literally
come to personify the NBA.
In the 1980s, he was just another of the superstars that the NBA had been
very successful in marketing to the public. The following year, the league received
an added boost when a new superstar was drafted by the Knicks. The New York
Knicks won the right to draft Georgetown center Patrick Ewing in the 1985 NBA
lottery. Ewing, a 7-0 center who had received more hype than any center since
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entered the league, had an immediate impact on reviving
basketball in New York.54 According to Sam Goldaper, Ewing was expected to
generate millions of dollars in additional box office, television, and radio revenues
for the Knicks and the NBA.55 The Knicks experienced a 66 percent ticket increase
from the previous year after news came that Ewing had been drafted.56 Like the
Knicks' championship team 15 years earlier, Ewing brought instant attention to
basketball in New York and the Knicks franchise.57 His arrival, coupled with
Jordan's and Johnson's presence in the NBA, gave the league three star players in
three of the largest media markets.
The addition of star talent and star personalities made the NBA very
profitable, and as a result the league expanded three times during the decade. The
Dallas Mavericks entered the league in 1980-81,58 followed by the Miami Heat and
the Charlotte Hornets in 1988-89.59 The Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando
Magic would enter the league just one year later, bringing the total number of teams
to 27.60 The league was prospering, and that was reflected in the status of the
NBA's network contract.
In 1986-87, the NBA and TBS agreed to a 2-year, $25 million contract.
When that contract expired, the NBA agreed with TBS and TNT to another 2-year
deal, this time worth $50 million. By the late 1980s, CBS was telecasting 15-16
regular season games each year. The ratings were holding steady, while the ratings
for TBS and TNT rose from 6.6 percent in 1985-86 to 7.3 percent in 1989-90 (see
Appendix B). By the end of the decade, there were more than 700 regular season
games broadcast by local stations--an increase of nearly 35 percent from 1985-86,
reflected partly through the league's expansions.61 Cable telecasts also rose 39
percent during that same period, thanks to the launch of new regional and cable
sports networks.62 The decade closed with the NBA signing with NBC for $600
million over four years, the most lucrative contract in NBA history.63 In just one
decade, the league's television fortunes had come full-circle.
The 1980s was a decade of tremendous change for the NBA on television.
The influx of new stars such as Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson
gave the league a new image and new players to market. The arrival of David Stem
as commissioner in 1983 saw changes in the way the league dealt withtelevision.
The number of national telecasts was limited to give the NBA good standing with
the networks. Television contracts exploded from roughly $18.5 million a year to
$150 million a year by the end of the decade. Stem's marketing strategies increased
the league's revenue and created superstars out of Bird, Jordan, Johnson, and
others. The league had reached new heights in popularity, the only question was
whether those heights could be sustained as the 1990s began.
1. "Basketball Comeback," The New York Times 28 Dec. 1981, p. C2.
2. Dave Kindred, "Tube Boob Can't Cope With NBA; Subtleties Too Rich for TV," The
Washington Post 3 June 1979, p. G1.
3. The Associated Press, "'Hick' Bird A Rich Celt," The Washington Post 9 June 1979, p. Dl.
4. Bob Ryan, "The Two and Only," Sports Illustrated 14 Dec. 1992, p. 49.
5. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New York:
Villard Books, 1989), 163.
6. Jack McCallum, "Larry Bird and Magic Johnson," Sports Illustrated 19 Sept. 1994, p. 67.
7. Ken Denlinger, "Johnson's 42 Gives Lakers NBA Title," The Washington Post 17 May
1980, p. Dl.
8. Bruce Newman, "The NBA Goes Back To School," Sports Illustrated 9 Nov. 1981, p. 41.
9. ibid, p. 41.
10. ibid, p. 41.
11. ibid, p. 42.
12. Thomas Rogers, "N.B.A. Eliminates Bonus Free Throws," The New York Times 31 July
1981, p. A14.
13. Bruce Newman, "The NBA Goes Back to School," Sports Illustrated 9 Nov. 1981, p. 42.
14. ibid, p. 42.
15. ibid, p. 47.
16. ibid, p. 47.
17. ibid, p. 47.
18. Jack Craig, "A TV Bone in the NBA's Throat," The Sporting News 24 Jan. 1983, p. 17.
19. Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New
York: Free Press, 1984), 147.
20. Jack Craig, "A TV Bone in the NBA's Throat," The Sporting News 24 Jan. 1983, p. 17.
21. ibid, p. 17.
22. ibid, p. 17.
23. Jack Craig, "Look Who's Gaining on TV--the NBA" The Sporting News, 23
April 1984, p. 9.
24. ibid, p. 9.
25. ibid, p. 9.
26. ibid, p. 9.
27. ibid, p. 9.
28. ibid, p. 9.
29. ibid, p. 9.
30. "Top Rate," The New York Times 19 June 1987, p. D23.
31. Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of
Televised Sports (Upper Saddle Bridge, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 258.
32. ibid, p. 258.
33. "NBA Moving Ahead," The Sporting News 19 Dec. 1983, p. 6.
34. Scott Howard-Cooper, "A 10-Year-Old System That Revolutionized Sports," Los
Angeles Times 21 Aug. 1994, Part C, p. 9.
35. Brenton Welling, Jonathan Tasini, & Dan Cook, "Basketball: Business Is Booming,"
Business Week 28 Oct. 1985, p. 78.
36. Jeffrey Meitrodt, "NBA's Popularity Concerns Owners," The Times-Picayune 24 Jan.
1997, p. S58.
37. ibid, p. S58.
38. Brenton Welling, Jonathan Tasini, & Dan Cook, "Basketball: Business Is Booming,"
Business Week 28 Oct. 1985, p. 74.
39. ibid, p. 82.
40. ibid, p. 82.
41. ibid, p. 82.
42. ibid, p. 82.
43. ibid, p. 82.
44. ibid, p. 82.
45. ibid, p. 74.
46. Bob Sakamoto, "In the End, Jordan's No. 1," The Chicago Tribune 17 May 1985, Section
4, p. 1.
47. ibid, p. 1.
48. Jane Gross, "Jordan Makes People Wonder: Is He the New Dr. J?" The New York Times
21 Oct. 1984, Section 5, p. 9.
49. Bob Sakamoto, "In the End, Jordan's No. 1," The Chicago Tribune 17 May 1985, Section
4, p. 1.
50. ibid, p. 1.
51. Sam Goldaper, "Jordan Scores 63 in Loss," The New York Times 21 April 1986, p. Cl.
52. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
53. Zander Hollander (ed.) & Alex Sachare (ed.), The Official NBA Encyclopedia (New
York: Villard Books, 1989), 195.
54. Brenton Welling, Jonathan Tasini, & Dan Cook, "Basketball: Business is Booming,"
Business Week 28 Oct. 1985, p. 73.
55. Sam Goldaper, "All Eyes on Lottery For Ewing," The New York Times 6 May 1985, p.
56. Brenton Welling, Jonathan Tasinin, & Dan Cook, "Basketball: Business Is Booming,"
Business Week 28 Oct. 1985, p. 73.
57. ibid, p. 73.
58. David DuPree, "League Approves Dallas Entry," The Washington Post 3 Feb. 1980, p.
59. Anthony Cotton, "NBA Accepts Miami, Charlotte, Orlando, Twin Cities," The
Washington Post 23 April 1987, p. B1.
60. ibid, p. Bl.
61. Bortz & Company, Inc., Sports on Television: A New Game For Broadcasters (Denver:
National Association of Broadcasters, 1990), 6.
62. ibid, p. 6.
63. John Steinbreder, "The Ball's in a New Court," Sports Illustrated 20 Nov. 1989, p. 175.
ON THE COATTAILS OF MICHAEL JORDAN
The 1980s saw an unprecedented popularity explosion for the NBA. The
heights NBA founders had hoped to reach when the league was born in 1946 had
finally been attained in the 1980s. Now, the only question was how to sustain that
popularity. As the decade began, NBC had signed the NBA away from CBS for
$750 million over four years.
The NBA lost Erving and Abdul-Jabbar when the '80s ended, and Magic
Johnson and Larry Bird, the two most credited with bringing the NBA its success,
were nearing the ends of their historic careers. The Lakers were no longer world
champions, having been dethroned by the Pistons in 1989. The Celtics had not been
to the Finals since 1987, and they would not return during Bird's final years. But
the league still had Michael Jordan, who was entering his decade of dominance. He
would lift the league to even greater heights in both popularity and on television.
The 1990s would become Jordan's decade.
Jordan Reaches the Pinnacle
Each year since Michael Jordan's arrival in the NBA in 1984, the Chicago
Bulls had been building steadily for a championship. Each season the team went
deeper into the playoffs, and by the time the 1980s ended, Chicago was left with
only one opponent between them and the Finals--the Detroit Pistons, the two-time
world champions in 1988-89 and 1989-90. The Pistons were known as "The Bad
Boys," and they eliminated Jordan's Bulls from the playoffs for three straight years.1
But in 1990-91, Chicago finally defeated them to enter the NBA Finals for the first
time.2 And now, the NBA's biggest star had the league's biggest stage to
make his impact on television. Nearly a decade later, Jordan would leave his mark
on NBA--and television--history.
Ironically enough, Jordan would have to win his championship against the
"Team of the 80s," and the "Player of the 80s" as well, the Lakers and Magic
Johnson. NBC could not have asked for a better championship series to televise in
its first season, and the 1991 NBA Finals became a media circus as national
attention was showered on the two marquee players. Jack McCallum noted this in
"Show of Shows: For Star Quality, the Magic and Michael Made-For-TV miniseries
tops all NBA Finals" when he wrote, "the NBA has never seen anything like this."3
Michael Wilbon added in "It Doesn't Get Any Better," that, "these NBA Finals will
be the most widely and most passionately watched basketball championship series
The series proved to be a changing of the guard in two respects. First,
Jordan won his first-ever championship after Magic had won five during the '80s.
Secondly, Jordan assumed the position of leading the NBA in the ratings wars.
Johnson and Bird had battled in three NBA Finals that had garnered the highest
ratings ever the previous decade, and in the '90s it was Jordan's turn.
Jordan led the Bulls to three straight championships in the 1990s, and the
1993 NBA Finals surpassed the 1987 Lakers-Celtics matchup as the highest-rated
NBA Finals ever.5 Then, seemingly without warning, Jordan retired following the
Bulls' third-straight championship, leaving the NBA--and television--with a huge
void. Jordan had led the Bulls in NBC's top four-rated games of the 1992-93
season, and his loss left many to ponder who would take his place.6 With Bird
having retired at the end of 1992, and Magic's unexpected retirement due to AIDS
in 1991, in just three seasons the league had lost its three most popular stars.
In a New York Times article, "Television Loses Star of the Ratings Game,"
Richard Sandomir commented on NBC and TNT's position. Sandomir wrote,
"NBC and TNT relied on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to swell their ratings,
scheduling as many Bulls games as their NBA contracts would allow."7 Sandomir
cited that it was partly due to Jordan's presence that the networks signed new four-
year deals that required them to pay 25 percent more than previously. Sandomir
also remarked that not only was Jordan a great player, but he played in the nation's
third-largest market. During his career, Jordan provided TNT and with ratings 17
percent higher than the season average for telecasts.8
According to Sandomir, NBC overreacted to the loss of its NBA star by
first televising 30 minutes of Jordan's press conference and then by dispatching Tom
Brokaw of "NBC Nightly News" to interview Jordan that same night.9 Leonard
Shapiro also noted NBC's coverage of Jordan's retirement in "Wave Bye to CBS;
Hold Off on Jordan" in The Washington Post.10 Coverage of Jordan led off the
telecast, followed by a few minutes for a report on the situation in Somalia.1
Sandomir thought NBC's reaction was a bit extreme, perhaps because the network
knew what a product it was losing in Jordan.
New Stars Fill the Void
Jordan might have been gone, but the NBA had already been grooming new
players to fill the void. The player most felt would take Jordan's place as the
league's new ratings star was Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-2 center from the Orlando
Magic.12 However, there were still stars from the 1980s that could help attract
attention. Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz, Jordan's fellow class of
'84 alumnus Charles Barkley, and Knick center Patrick Ewing were some of the
stars who were still playing from the 1980s.13 With Jordan gone, one of these
players would have a chance at the title that the Bulls had owned in the '90s.14
And with a championship would come the recognition that Jordan and the Bulls had
received for so many years. However, it would not be one of these players
that would win the title. Instead, it would be another of Jordan's class of '84 alumni,
Olajuwon was a 6-10 center from the University of Houston. Drafted first
overall in 1984 (ahead of Jordan), Olajuwon had already led his Houston Rockets to
the NBA Finals in 1986, where they lost to Boston.15 In 1994, he led the Rockets
to a championship series matchup with his old rival, Patrick Ewing and the New
However, a series that was supposed to be a coronation for one of the
league's best players and a showcase for two of the nation's two biggest markets
came off poorly. John Dempsey wrote in "The NBA's Image Dribbles Away" in
Variety that part of the reason for the low ratings was the "series' grindingly
unattractive defensive basketball, which turns off the casual viewer." 17 Michael
Wilbon of The Washington Post noted that, "There is no more brilliance in the
NBA, not based on what we've seen in these Finals."18 The result was that the
Knicks-Rockets Finals series garnered only a 12.3 rating, down 30 percent from the
Bulls-Suns series of the previous year.19 Part of the reason was the style of play,
another reason, in Game 5 anyway, was the famous chase of O.J. Simpson, which
NBC cut away from the game to follow. The result was a 7.8 rating, the most
abysmal rating for an Game Five since the 1981 Finals, which were shown on tape-
The disappointing ratings for the 1994 NBA Finals lent credence to the
belief that the league would suffer without Jordan. There were other problems the
league was facing, including the prospect of a player's strike in 1995, and the recent
retirements of Bird, Johnson, and Jordan.21 All of this amounted to
diminished ratings for the NBA. There was still optimism because David Stem,
who had organized the league during its most prosperous era, was still the
commissioner.22 Also, there was the possibility that the NBA's young stars would
develop into media personalities the equivalent of Bird, Johnson, and Jordan.23 But
the NBA would not have to wait, because Jordan would return from his baseball
sabbatical in the latter stages of the 1994-95 season.
On March 19, 1995, Jordan made his return for an NBC game against the
Indiana Pacers, ending his 21-month "retirement." As expected, NBC neatly
accommodated Jordan's return. The network enlarged the scope of the telecast
from the original 53 percent to 98 percent of the country, sending the Utah-
Charlotte game only to the team's home markets.24 Ahmad Rashad, Jordan's friend,
was sent to follow his every move on the sidelines. Bob Costas was sent to
Indianapolis to host the nearly 25-minute pregame show which featured replays of
some of Jordan's greatest moments.25
Jordan's impact was immediate. Both NBC and CBS announced Jordan's
return in news bulletins and "special reports."26 NBC promotions people also
developed a 10-second spot that aired during all of the network's entertainment
shows on Saturday night and on Sunday morning's "today" and "Meet the Press."27
His return game against the Pacers, televised at noon on Saturday (the worst time
slot for an NBA game ratings-wise), pulled in a rating of 13.4, the highest rating of
the 94-95 season.28
This was in comparison to the average rating of 2.2 NBC had achieved in
that spot due to competition with college basketball on CBS.29 NBC and TNT
immediately engaged in a bidding war to televise a Friday-night game later that
week between the Bulls and the Magic, with TNT winning out and sharing the
broadcast with WGN-TV, the Bulls local station in Chicago.30 However, the
league's excitement over Jordan's return was dissipated when the Bulls were
eliminated early in the playoffs by the Orlando Magic.
Despite the fact the Bulls did not win a championship, Jordan's return had a
huge impact on the ratings over the short period he had played. The playoffs on
NBC were up 13 percent to a 7.0 rating from 1994's 6.2.31 This marked the
highest cumulative playoff average for the NBA in 18 years.32 TNT's ratings
skyrocketed 30 percent upward from 1994, and games on TNT from May 8-14
pulled in the highest seven ratings for cable, including an NBA-record 7.9 for a
Bulls-Magic game on May 10.3 According to Thomas Walsh in "Can Playoff
Hoops Fly Without Air" in Variety, NBC tried to explain away the meteoric rise
since Jordan's return, but it was clear that his presence had a tremendous effect on
the league's television ratings.34
The next season, Jordan cemented his television supremacy, as the Bulls
romped through a record-setting 72-win season and won their fourth championship
of the '90s.35 Sandomir examined Jordan's ratings impact on the 1995-96 season.
Five NBC Bulls games averaged a 6.6 rating, while the 11 non-Bulls games
averaged a 4.6 rating.36 This marked a 43.6-percent increase from non-Bulls games
to Bulls games.37
Cable also experienced the windfall from Jordan's television appearances. In
1995, nine Bulls telecasts on TNT pulled in a 3.7 rating; the remaining 30 games
averaged only a 1.7 rating.38 Thus, TNT games featuring Jordan generated a 117
percent increase in ratings over non-Bulls games.39 TBS's five Bulls games netted a
2.9 rating; the 15 non-Bulls games pulled in only a 1.7 rating.40 This indicated a
70.5 percent increase in ratings for Bulls games.41 But these were not the only
statistics Sandomir used to measure Jordan's impact on the NBA.
Sandomir noted that even though TNT and TBS were obliged to show all
teams, which would lead to some unattractive matchups and consequently poor
ratings, Jordan's impact was still great.42 Before Jordan's retirement, Bulls games in
TNT-TBS rated about 10 percent higher than the next-highest team.43 In 1995-96,
ratings for Bulls games were 41 percent higher than those of the next highest team,
the Orlando Magic.44
Five of the seven highest-rated games in 1995-96 starred the Bulls, and the
highest-rated non-Bulls matchup, San Antonio against Orlando, rated 21 percent
lower than a Bulls-Suns game on Super Sunday that was the highest-rated game of
the season.45 The result was that the networks sought to televise as many Bulls
games as possible under the NBA contract. The potential problem was that the rest
of the league would be neglected and would not be promoted enough to help the
NBA maintain its popularity after Jordan's retirement.46 As the 1997-98 season
approached, the networks and NBC in particular would play up the angle of
Jordan's retirement and in return would get great ratings again.
The NBA Again Faces Life After Jordan
Before the 1997-98 season started, there was speculation it would be
Jordan's last.47 The Bulls had re-signed head coach Phil Jackson for only one more
season, and they made it clear that he would not return for another one.48 Jordan
announced that he would not play for another coach, which made most observers
believe it would be his last year in the NBA.49 With Jordan's retirement imminent,
NBC sought to exploit the angle that every playoff series could be Jordan's last.50
This was the theme throughout the final two playoff series for the Bulls in 1997-98,
against Indiana and Utah. NBC experienced the power of public interest in Jordan's
last game when the Bulls were unexpectedly pushed to a seventh game in the
Eastern Conference Finals by the Indiana Pacers.
With the Bulls' season and Jordan's career hinging on one game, NBC went
all out in its efforts to deliver the product. There was a half-hour pregame show
that documented the drama of the series, and after the Bulls won 88-83, the impact
of the public's interest in Jordan came through in the ratings.51 The game resulted in
a 19.1 rating, the seventh-highest NBA game of all-time and nearly 3 points higher
than any non-Finals telecast in history.52
In the NBA Finals against Utah, the Bulls continued to snare record-ratings.
If not for the fact that the series lacked drama after the second game, it was believed
that the Finals would have shattered all of the records.53 Still, each game of the
Chicago-Utah series rated first or second all-time in Finals history in ratings.
Jordan's impact on the NBA Finals during the 1990s was also evident. The first five
NBA Finals that included the Bulls averaged a primetime rating of 16.3, 31 percent
better than the three Finals without Chicago.54 Also, of the 15 highest-rated NBA
telecasts ever, Chicago was featured in 11.55 Jordan's decade of dominance was
As the 1990s come to a close, there again is speculation on whether the
league can survive on television without Jordan. The two years in which his Bulls
did not appear in the Finals in the mid-90s experienced a severe ratings drop from
the Finals the Bulls participated in.56 Jordan's impact was felt in delivering the two
highest-rated Finals in NBA history, as well as the highest-ever non-Finals game in
history.57 His Bulls have been part of 11 of the top 15 most-watched games in NBA
history, and Jordan's return from retirement generated the highest regular-season
ratings for the NBA in years. However, the question remains ofhow to replace a
player with Jordan's mass appeal. NBA officials hope the new wave of superstars
can appeal to fans the same way Jordan did.58
1. Jack McCallum, "Watch out World," Sports Illustrated 3 June 1991, p. 26.
2. ibid, p. 26.
3. Jack McCallum, "Show of Shows: For Star Quality, the Magic and Michael Made-For-TV
Miniseries tops all NBA Finals," Sports Illustrated 10 June 1991, p. 20.
4. Michael Wilbon, "It Doesn't Get Any Better," The Washington Post 1 June 1991, p. Gl.
5. Richard Sandomir, "Television Loses Star of the Ratings Game," The New York Times 7
Oct. 1993, p. B20.
6. ibid, p. B20.
7. ibid, p. B20.
8. Steve Nidetz, "TV Digs in for life after Jordan," The Chicago Tribune 7 Oct. 1993,
Section 4, p. 11.
9. Richard Sandomir, "NBC Goes Bonkers Over Jordan," The New York Times 8 Oct. 1993,
10. Leonard Shapiro, "Wave Bye to CBS; Hold Off on Jordan," The Washington Post 8 Oct.
1993, p. C2.
11. Richard Sandomir, "NBC Goes Bonkers Over Jordan," The New York Times 8 Oct. 1993,
12. John Ed Bradley, "Sugar Shaq," Sports Illustrated25 April 1994, p. 55.
13. Phil Taylor, "Together Again," Sports Illustrated 13 June 1994, p. 27.
14. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
15. Phil Taylor, "Together Again," Sports Illustrated 13 June 1994, p. 27.
16. ibid, p. 27.
17. John Dempsey, "NBA's Image Dribbles Away," Variety 27 June 1994, p. 27.
18. Michael Wilbon, "Finals a Little Light on Brilliance," The Washington Post 16 June 1994,
19. John Dempsey, "NBA's Image Dribbles Away," Variety 27 June 1994, p. 28.
20. ibid, p. 28.
21. ibid, p. 27.
22. ibid, p. 27.
23. ibid, p. 28.
24. Richard Sandomir, "NBC Hopes Comeback Pumps Air into Ratings," The New York
Times 20 March 1995, p. C4.
25. ibid, p. C4.
26. Steve Nidetz, "NBC Glad to Accept Jordan Ratings Windfall," The Chicago Tribune 19
March 1995, Section 3, p. 12.
27. ibid, p. 12.
28. Richard Sandomir, "NBC's Ratings Soar Higher than Jordan," The New York Times 21
March 1995, p. B 13.
29. ibid, p. B13.
30. ibid, p. B13.
31. Thomas Walsh, "Can Hoop Playoffs Fly Without Air," Variety 22 May 1995, p. 37.
32. Steve Nidetz, "ESPN Show Mixes Sports, Religion," The Chicago Tribune 19 May 1995,
Section 4, p. 5.
33. Thomas Walsh, "Can Hoop Playoffs Fly Without Air," Variety 22 May 1995, p. 39.
34. ibid, p. 39.
35. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
36. Richard Sandomir, "Ratings Dunk: Jordan Plays and People Watch," The New York Times
22 March 1996, p. B 15.
37. ibid, p. B15.
38. ibid, p. B15.
39. ibid, p. B15.
40. ibid, p. B 15.
41. ibid, p. B15.
42. ibid, p. B 15.
43. ibid, p. B 15.
44. ibid, p. B 15.
45. ibid, p. B 15.
46. ibid, p. B 15.
47. Phil Taylor, "Hang in There," Sports Illustrated 16 Feb. 1998, p. 36.
48. ibid, p. 37.
49. ibid, p. 37.
50. Tom Bierbaum, "Peacock Sells Jordan Farewell" Variety 15 June 1998: p. 26.
51. Rob Longley, "NBC Excels in Airing Jordan," The Toronto Sun 1 June 1998, p. 9.
52. Tom Bierbaum, "Peacock Sells Jordan Farewell," Variety 15 June 1998, p. 26.
53. ibid, p. 26.
54. ibid, p. 26.
55. ibid, p. 26.
56. ibid, p. 26.
57. ibid, p. 26.
58. John Dempsey, "The NBA's Image Dribbles Away," Variety 27 June 1994, p. 28.
KEY GAMES IN TELEVISION HISTORY
Throughout the NBA's checkered history on television, there have been
several games that marked significant moments in the league's television history.
Five of the most important games in television history have been highlighted for
their contributions to or detractions from the NBA's image. The criteria used for
selecting these games were as follows: They had to be landmark games, or firsts in
television history, they had to make an impact on the NBA's television fortunes,
whether positively or negatively. There were some significant games that were
eliminated using these criteria, and some games that were important were lost with
the passage of time.
For instance, the first televised game in league history and the first playoff
game in television history were never found, so they were eliminated from
contention. The Russell-Chamberlain confrontations of the early 1960s and the
Celtics-Lakers Finals from the '60s were eliminated because they did not
significantly impact the NBA's television history. Despite the Russell-Chamberlain
matchups in the early '60s, NBC dropped the NBA from its television lineup in
1962. The Celtics-Lakers Finals in the '60s were great in a historical context, but
they did little to broaden basketball's appeal to television audiences. It was not
until the Knicks won the championship in 1970 that the NBA finally had "arrived."
That said, the key games that were selected according to the criteria listed are as
follows: the 1954 Knicks-Celtics game that NBC was forced to cut away from,
Game One of the 1956 NBA Finals between the Philadelphia Warriors and the Fort
Wayne Pistons, Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Knicks and the
Lakers, Game Seven of the 1984 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers,
and Game One of the 1991 NBA Finals between the Bulls and the Lakers. What
follows is a description of each of the games and their significance in the NBA's
Game One: Eastern Division Playoffs: March 16, 1954
Boston Celtics 93
New York Knicks 71
In the last year before the NBA 24-second shot clock was implemented, this
game stands out because of its effect on NBC. The Celtics and Knicks met in Game
One of the Eastern Division Playoffs in Madison Square Garden. NBC executives
had decided to give the NBA a national showcase for the game. But a great
opportunity for the league was squandered when both teams committed 95 fouls in
what was called "one of the worst basketball games ever played".1 The Celtics won,
but not many people knew the outcome because the network cut away from the
game in disgust.2 The New York Times made no mention of the impact the game
had on television, but but the game did highlight the NBA's problems with the
excessive fouling and stalling game that personified the league in the early 1950s.3
These problems necessitated the adoption of the 24-second clock, and the old
problems were soon eliminated.4 This game may have been a setback in the NBA's
television history, but it helped to force the league to make drastic changes to adapt
to the new medium.
Game One: NBA Finals: March 31, 1956
Philadelphia Warriors 98
Fort Wayne Pistons 94
This game has been long forgotten, but it was the first nationally televised
NBA Finals game. Philadelphia had the league's best record at 45-27 entering the
Finals, but the Pistons had the league's best defense and had lost to Syracuse the
previous year in the Finals.5 Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston had finished second and
third in the league in scoring for Philadelphia, and Arizin would score a game-high
28 points as the Warriors triumphed in Philadelphia before a crowd of 4,100 and a
national television audience.6
Game Seven: 1970 NBA Finals: May 8, 1970
New York Knicks 113
Los Angeles Lakers 99
The 1960s had been a turbulent decade for the NBA on television. The
league had endured being dropped from network television by NBC in the middle of
the decade, and two upstart leagues had sprouted to compete with the NBA for an
audience. In 1969-70, the ABA played its second season, but the NBA's problems
were overshadowed by what happened in New York. The Knicks, after struggling
for years, became a championship team in 1969. They entered the Finals against the
Lakers with the league's best record (60-22), and they brought national attention to
the NBA. This was reflected when Leonard Koppett of The New York Times wrote,
"darlings of the basketball world and a subject of national sports interest since
November ... the Knicks finally achieved the first title in their 24-year history."7
For years the league had suffered from the lack of success in its biggest media
market, but all that changed in 1969. The culmination came in the seventh game of
the NBA Finals.
The most lasting television image from that game and one of the most
enduring television images in sports history came when an injured Willis Reed
limped onto the court just before the opening tip.8 The sight of Reed ignited the
Knicks' already boisterous crowd, and it fired up his Knick teammates as well.9
Reed scored only four points in the game and played only sparingly in the first half,
but the Knicks, led by guard Walt Frazier's 36-point, 19-assist effort, cruised to a
113-99 victory over the Lakers.10 An article in Newsweek noted that the Knicks'
season had brought unprecedented national exposure to the NBA,11 and experts
began to predict that professional basketball would become the "Sport of the
Game Seven: 1984 NBA Finals: June 12, 1984
Boston Celtics 111
Los Angeles Lakers 102
This game became the highest-rated NBA telecast of all time, and it marked
the beginning of the NBA's television resurgence in the 1980s. At the start of the
decade, the NBA Finals had been shown on tape-delay because CBS had no faith in
capturing a large audience.13 Then, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the
NBA, and their commitment to the concept of team play changed the image of the
NBA players as being selfish individuals.14 Their rivalry had already captured
national attention when their teams met for the 1979 NCAA Final, and in their first
four years in the NBA the Lakers and Celtics combined for three of the four
championships in the '80s.15 But in 1984, the Celtics and Lakers finally met for the
championship, in a seven-game struggle that marked the turning point in the NBA's
image on television.
Game Seven attracted the largest television audience in NBA history up to
that point.16 Behind Series MVP Larry Bird's 20 points and 12 rebounds, Boston
defeated Los Angeles and Magic Johnson 111-102 in Boston Garden.17 It was a
championship setting for the NBA's resurgence. Two of the league's most storied
franchises and the league's two best players had made the Finals series a success on
television, and new Commissioner David Stern used this stroke of luck to give the
NBA image the jumpstart it needed.18 Over the next three years Johnson and Bird
would meet twice in the Finals, and their 1987 encounter would be the highest-rated
NBA Finals of all-time until 1993.19 Their rivalry saved the league.20
Game One: 1991 NBA Finals: June 2, 1991
Los Angeles Lakers 93
Chicago Bulls 91
The 1991 NBA Finals were symbolic, as the torch of television supremacy
was passed from Magic Johnson, who represented the 1980s old guard, to Michael
Jordan, who would lead the league in the 1990s. Not since Johnson and Bird had
squared off for the third and final time in the NBA Finals in 1987 had there been as
much media attention centered on an NBA Finals series. The only problem for
NBC, which was televising NBA games for the first time that season, was whether
the Finals would last long enough to make a profit. The hope was that with all of
the hype surrounding the Magic-Michael rivalry, the series would go to six or seven
games in order for the network to make a profit (it went five).21 NBC executives
clearly received the matchup they had hoped for, with the Bulls and Lakers also
being in two of the top three television markets in the nation.
The Bulls lost the opening game of the series 93-91 in Chicago Stadium, as
a Jordan jump shot that would have tied the game rolled off of the rim at the
buzzer.22 Still, Jordan finished with a game-high 36 points, 12 assists, and eight
rebounds.23 Unfortunately for NBC, the series would last only five games, with
Chicago winning the last four in succession and Jordan winning his long sought-
after championship. This series would serve as the springboard to Chicago's
dominance during the 1990s, and the Bulls annually would become the league's
most-watched team.24 By 1998, they would win their sixth championship and hold
NBA records for the highest-rated regular-season game and NBA Finals series ever.
In fact, Jordan and the Bulls have appeared in 11 of the 15 highest-rated NBA
Each of these games had an impact on the NBA's television history. The
1954 Knicks-Celtics game was significant not only because it was an early setback
for the league on television, but because it established the need for a rule change
that would make the game more attractive to the television audience. The 1956
NBA Finals were significant because they were the first to be televised nationally.
The 1970 NBA Finals brought the league unprecedented attention because of the
Knicks' championship victory. The 1984 NBA Finals was memorable because it
was the first "Magic vs. Bird" championship series, and it marked the beginning of
the league's era of prosperity in the 1980s. Finally, the 1991 NBA Finals were
significant because Michael Jordan had finally reached the Finals, and he opposed
Johnson in another series that became a media spectacle. The series also was the
springboard to Chicago's television dominance of the NBA over the next eight
1. Michael L. LaBlanc, Professional Team Histories: Basketball (Detroit: Gale Research,
2. ibid, p. 78.
3. Charles Paikert, "When Biasone Took 24 Seconds to Save the N.B.A.," The New York
Times 28 Oct. 1984, Section 5, p. 2.
4. ibid, p. 2.
5. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
6. The Associated Press, "Warriors Topple Nats Five," The New York Times 30
March 1956, p. 15.
7. Leonard Koppett, "Knicks Take First Title, Beat Lakers, 113-99," The New York Times 9
May 1970, p. 1.
8. NBA's Greatest Games: Game Seven 1970 NBA Finals. New York: NBA Properties
9. "You Gotta Have Heart," Newsweek 18 May 1970, p. 93.
10. Bob Logan, "Frazier Stars in Rout of Lakers," The Chicago Tribune 9 May 1970, Section
2, p. 1.
11. "You Gotta Have Heart," Newsweek 18 May 1970, p. 93.
12. William Marsano, "Will it be the Game of the '70s?" TV Guide 4 April 1970, p. 15.
13. Jack Craig, "A TV Bone in the NBA's Throat," The Sporting News 24 Jan. 1983, p. 17.
14. Jack McCallum, "Larry Bird and Magic Johnson," Sports Illustrated 19 Sept. 1994, p. 67.
15. Bob Ryan, "The Two and Only," Sports Illustrated 14 Dec. 1992, p. 50.
16. Jack Craig, "Record NBA TV Rating," The Sporting News 25 June 1984, p. 11.
17. Roland Lazenby, The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration (Indianapolis: Masters Press,
18. Bob Ryan, "The Two and Only," Sports Illustrated 14 Dec. 1992, p. 50.