Bill Simmons used his recently launched venture, Grantland, to deliver an article about how “The Decision” was the best thing that has happened to the NBA in 15 years. No. Really. He used his new venture on Grantland, where it is supposedly not merely about driving traffic and hits, to proclaim that an event that disrupted the entire structure of the NBA was good for the league. His proclamation is based almost exclusively on ratings. So, let me rephrase. Bill Simmons started a venture, Grantland, where quality is derived almost exclusively by not blindly chasing Internet traffic spikes and yet the league he cares so much about was served proudly by an event of extremely questionable taste and judgment because it supposedly drove up ratings?
I don’t really want to talk about LeBron James anymore. I don’t want to talk about my feelings or what a self-centered egomaniac I think he is. It is all tired. It has been stated ad nauseum and there is a specific reason that I am staying away from watching these NBA finals. I refuse to co-sign for what occurred in the league dynamic this season. I realize fully that my little “vote” counts for very little in the ratings book. Trust me, it isn’t about me trying to punish anyone with a “powerful sword” that I have at my side. It is more about not torturing myself as I vote “none of the above.”
None of that means that I don’t have opinions about the league and what it has become / is becoming. I will always have an interest in the business of sports. That is where I have the most problem with Bill Simmons’ latest column claiming that “The Decision” worked.
Let’s get into some of the specifics.
First off, Simmons says the year leading up to The Decision was good for everyone in terms of hype via ratings, media storylines and Internet traffic. This happens with major free agents all the time. LeBron’s free agency was epic because of how well LeBron had been sold from his high school years. All of this happened well before The Decision though. The biggest problem was The Decision itself. To think that LeBron’s free agency had to end the way it did on national television in order to be good for the league is a fallacy. Player movement and free agency are a spectacle all by themselves without the need for alleged player collusion while alienating customers under the guise of charity.
Let’s talk about ratings for a second. I am continually mystified by sports bloggers’ obsession with ratings. I still don’t know what ratings have to do with quality. Dan Patrick led off his show yesterday by saying that close basketball games shouldn’t be confused with good basketball games. His opinion was that game four of these NBA finals was sloppy and ugly basketball. I didn’t watch the game, so I can’t really tell you whether he is right or wrong, but the philosophy is right.
ProBasketballTalk had some interesting numbers on the ratings. According to their numbers from ABC, Tuesday’s game drew a 9.6 rating. It is slightly behind last year’s game 4 between the Lakers and Celtics, but for the series 2011 is about 15,000 viewers ahead year-over-year for the series. So, 16,126,000 people watched game 4. If you multiply that number by four, we are talking about 64,504,000 sets of eyeballs so far in the series. And for all the drama, false and real, that was trumped up this season involving the Heat, the NBA achieved a 15,000 viewer marginal increase year-over-year for their marquee series to end the season. The Decision worked because the NBA achieved a marginal viewer increase of 0.0233% in the NBA Finals year-over-year? I’m not buying it.
More likely than anything else, Bill Simmons thinks The Decision worked because it made his job easier. There was an easy storyline for him to write about and talk about with guests on his podcast all year long. I can identify with that. For all the ease of doing business for him and other national sportswriters, we here in Cleveland know how much of a struggle it has been at times to fill these pages with LeBron James gone.
In the end though, I would argue that ratings are a false metric of quality. It is something that can be garnered with marketing and salesmanship. The fact that ESPN / ABC would be worried about trying to sell the league is silly. They have been able to sell LeBron James over the course of his career even when he played in lowly little Cleveland Ohio. At times they have been able to sell Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and even Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton’s Detroit Pistons in 2004. The Decision and the current Miami Heat made their sales job easier, but at what cost?
In the end, Simmons is enthralled by LeBron James as a player. Who is LeBron? What is LeBron? How great will he become? Ultimately, all those things could have been achievable as story-lines for ESPN / ABC and Simmons if LeBron had sent out a press release proclaiming he was going to New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Miami, or even if he was going to stay in Cleveland. So, to proclaim that The Decision is the best thing that happened to the NBA in 15 years is revisionist history at best and trolling for traffic at worst.
Don’t let anyone tell you that this is good for the league. It is fine if you believe that, but don’t think you have to believe it because TV executives and Bill Simmons are saying it loudly.