With dramatically higher television ratings over the past two seasons, the National Basketball Association (NBA) seems to have finally emerged from the stagnation of the post-Michael Jordan era. After two decades of meteoric growth during the 1980s and 90s, the league’s popularity stalled in the first years of the 21st century. A new group of players, including LeBron James and Kevin Durant, are now propelling basketball back to near the top of the sports universe.
During its infancy in the 1950s, the NBA represented a minor part of the sports landscape, largely based in small and medium-sized cities such as Syracuse and Fort Wayne. By the 1960s, the rivalry between big men Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain moved the league to center stage. The league stalled, however, in the 1970s, as a paucity of exciting players and an association with drugs damaged the NBA’s image. As the Reagan era dawned, the networks aired the NBA finals on tape delay and many franchises faced serious financial trouble.
The entrance of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird into the league in 1979, along with the continued greatness of Julius “Dr. J” Erving, brought basketball back to life in the 1980s, as the rivalry between Magic’s Celtics and Bird’s Lakers produced tremendous drama and high fan interest. By the end of the 1980s, the NBA was reaching parity with the NFL and major league baseball.
As Magic and Bird passed from the scene in the early ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan took the league to unprecedented heights. A once in a generation draw, Jordan became an international star that transcended barriers in the U.S. and around the world. He buoyed the entire sport as the excitement surrounding the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” a collection of the best professional players in the US, showed that the biggest individual stars in American sports were basketball players. Due to his star power, the NBA finals finally achieved ratings higher than the World Series during MJ’s last appearance in 1998.
Following Jordan’s second retirement that year, the league’s growth slowed. No player emerged to fill the vacuum left by Jordan’s departure and ratings fell significantly. Defense ruled and low-scoring games, while they might demonstrate skill, did not draw fans in the same numbers. The next generation of stars, such as Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson, did not seem to resonate with casual fans, perhaps due to their association with the growing hip-hop culture. The success of small-market franchises like the San Antonio Spurs, which won four titles in the post-MJ era, failed to stimulate the interest of the nation. Even when the Spurs and their low-key star Tim Duncan played against “next Jordan” LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007 finals, the matchup drew all-time low ratings.
The last four years, though, have witnessed a renaissance for the league. The re-emergence of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry provided a boost, as the two teams faced off in the 2008 and 2010 Finals. The Game 7 between the two historic franchises in 2010 drew the highest ratings for any game since Jordan’s last NBA Finals game in 1998.
The real break for the league, however, came when LeBron James announced his intention to leave Cleveland for Miami to join fellow stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in a highly publicized ESPN broadcast. The resulting backlash against the primetime program, “The Decision,” as well as the self-congratulatory celebration the “Big Three” held upon arriving in Miami, have made the Heat a nonstop reality show worthy of “American Idol“ for the last two seasons.
The “Heatles” became the most hated team in professional sports, buoying the league in general, with the NBA experiencing a huge increase in television ratings during the 2010-11 campaign. Despite the lockout, the league has sustained the momentum through this season as the Eastern Conference Finals matchup between Boston and Miami featured the three highest rated NBA games ever on ESPN. Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Heat and Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder drew the highest ratings for an opening game in at least a decade.
Though no player will likely ever equal Jordan’s star power, it’s possible that a James-Durant rivalry could match the Bird-Magic battles of the 1980s. After a decade of middling success, the NBA is in the midst of another boom period.