ONE OF TV’S MOST INTRIGUING DRAMAS doesn’t have a weekly time slot. Call it A Tale of Two Sports. As Houston and Orlando compete in the NBA finals this week, basketball is concluding a banner year. NBC’s play-off ratings through the conference championships were the highest they have been in 18 years. TBS and TNT, which covered 45 games in the earlier rounds, saw their ratings rise a whopping 33 percent over last year. Meanwhile, baseball is striking out, as indicated by ESPN’s early season ratings, which have dropped 32 percent from last year.
Basketball has benefited from a plethora of interesting stories: the return of Michael Jordan, the ascendance of those young upstarts in Orlando, Indiana’s cardiac finishes, the Rocky Horror Show that is Dennis Rodman. Baseball, of course, shot itself in the cleats with that protracted, senseless strike, which alienated and angered fans.
The difference is also one of image. The NBA has carefully tutored its players in the importance of maintaining a cordial, accommodating stance with the media, particularly TV. Too many baseball stars of all ages (from Eddie Murray to Roger Clemens to Barry Bonds) are uncooperative or surly. That’s not only bad public relations, it also hurts the bottom line. Consider, for instance, how many more basketball stars are featured in high-profile ad campaigns. All in all, it’s easy to understand why basketball is soaring while baseball slumps.