For Day 54 of our 100 Days of Hoops, we travel back to the 1950s when the NBA was not as popular as baseball, football or even college basketball. In its earliest seasons, the NBA was seen as a minor league to the baseball/football fans, while the NBA was desperate trying to find a partner to broadcast its games and the DuMont Network obliged in 1953.
The first NBA television deal involved thirteen games and a total revenue of $39,000. It only included Saturday afternoon games starting in December with the Baltimore Bullets and the Boston Celtics (okay so it was really 1953) as the Celtics won by around thirty points. Most of the time, the games weren’t pretty and this is all before the three-pointers and a shot clock, so games could have ended with any score (the winning score was once nineteen points). The pace of the game was slow and fouls were racking up. It made sense too as whenever one team had a lead at any point of the game they would stall the ball and keep passing until the opposing team fouled. And while the NBA certainly had its superstars in Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, they weren’t enough of a draw for fans to tune in on television and even less going to games. After the 1953-1954 season, the DuMont Television Network folded and the NBA turned to NBC. The Baltimore Bullets also lost so bad that day at Boston they disbanded a few games into the next season. Thanks, DuMont.
The first run of the NBA on NBC was the same deal as DuMont, only thirteen games filled but this time a slight tweak was made changing the game forever. Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone and general manager Leo Ferris came up with the idea of a 24-second shot clock and its idea was simple; the pick up the pace of the game.
The pace did go up as you can expect, teams initially averaged around ninety-three possessions per game and every team passed the century mark in possessions per game. The shot clock drew in more fans as they saw more action. The next season, the NBA telecasted its first NBA Finals series between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Philadelphia Warriors.
After NBC’s first run ended in 1962, ABC picked up the NBA and while the ratings improved, fans still waited for the games to be broadcasted via tape delay. ABC wouldn’t even show games on any day of the week besides Sunday. Meaning many playoff games were not broadcasted and even some of the NBA Finals featuring the Lakers and Celtics dominance. In the late 1960s, ABC did start to show a little more of the NBA, showing most of the 1969 and all of the 1970 Finals.
In the 1970s, the NBA was all about parity as eight different champions took home the trophy. Even though basketball was predicted to be the “Sport of the 1970s”, the NFL ratings blew it out of the water and while the NBA was still growing, it still had to compete with college basketball.
Which intro before a game would you rather choose if you lived in the ’70s?
The NBA moved to CBS in 1973 and remained for seventeen years. At this time, basketball itself was growing and two future NBA superstars were about to enter the league: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Bird, already a Celtic from the 1978 draft, was a hot commodity amongst Bostonians, earning nicknames such as “The Great (White) Hope”.
Bird and Johnson’s effect on the game cannot be understated enough. The Celtics immediately becoming title contenders and the Lakers, who already had a superstar in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar propelled to the best team saved the NBA on CBS. After the 1980s, NBC won back the NBA in 1990 for $601 million for four years, TNT also picked up the NBA in 1989. At this point, the NBA had reached its highest point of popularity.
Below is a list of NBA television contracts, cable and network respectively.
NBC and TNT couldn’t have asked for a better start to a TV contract, as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were nearing retirement, Michael Jordan took over. Ratings were setting new records every night. Both stations knew it and invested into the Bulls as much as they can in the contract. Once he retired, the new thing within the NBA media was about TNT talk shows. The NBA and its players became so popular that TNT analysts began developing their own personalities and characters in the middle of games.
Now, we’re at the point where we get nonstop NBA information from the snap of our hands. Television itself has evolved to where sports networks are becoming 24/7 365 days a year covering all sports.
Basketball especially has become culturally relevant filled with modern superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. The game has evolved as well to the point where position-less basketball has become the new trend and fans feel connected to the players thanks to social media platforms. The NBA contract will likely get bigger, as the latest deal in 2016 valued at $2.66 billion ($1.4 billion from ESPN and $1.2 billion from Turner) per year. This TV deal is the largest in league history and led to an increase in salary cap which is why you see players like Timofey Mozgov make $16 million a year. The NBA constantly evolves and the 2017-18 season will be more spread out in scheduling. Thanks to Magic, Kareem, Larry, Michael, Kobe and LeBron, basketball has become global and the league will start to see more players from smaller countries thanks to television access and internet streaming.