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In a Flyover State: Commissioner Stern’sGot Next

When LeBron James told us he was taking his ego—sorry, talents—to South Beach, it is well documented that the announcement happened in one of the most deplorable television shows that anyone can remember. While at press time his former team in Cleveland had not won a game since the only Ted Williams we knew was a baseball player, the shrapnel from The Decision left many other parties worse off—namely the reputations of LeBron, Jim Gray and ESPN.

But a funny thing happened on the way to American Airlines Arena in Miami. The Decision may have been one of the greatest things to happen to the NBA in years. Seriously. And even the league’s commissioner, David Stern, acknowledges that the creation of a story line like that has been great for TV ratings.

“Having teams that fans don’t feel neutral about is good for interest,” Stern told me over the phone. “Now people tune in to watch [the Heat] dominate, or lose. And that’s a good thing.”

And tune in they are. The purveying theory that all live sports are just on fire as a matter of course is dead wrong; just ask the folks at NASCAR. But the NBA’s numbers this year are remarkable. According to the authoritative SportsBusiness Daily, viewership this season on TNT is up 33%, while ESPN is up 22.3% and ABC’s four games are up 44.1%.

So of course, the question is why. And for me, the answer is the same as why anything ever works in television—who the hell can be sure?

“I agree with your analysis,” Stern says. “We never know why something [in TV] happens, but when there is more of a conversation about a sport, it ultimately will be found to increase interest and ratings.”

And there has been plenty of conversation, and still much of it surrounding LeBron. In one uncomfortable hour in the off-season, he quickly became the A-Rod of the NBA. And then recently, when he publicly decreed there are too many teams in the NBA, that didn’t exactly add to his popularity in small markets. And while the commish wasn’t remotely thrilled with James’ running of his mouth, he is willing to give him a pass.

“He’s an intelligent young man who gets microphones stuck at him, and on balance you [will say things] you wish you hadn’t said,” Stern says. “Who doesn’t have that happen?”

Well, you, Mr. Commissioner.

“Oh, go check the transcripts,” he shoots back, laughing. “Believe me, I have had my moments.”

Speaking of moments, Stern thinks LeBron’s will pass, as people forget about the means by which he announced his move to Miami.

“I think it’s a temporary phenomenon,” the commissioner predicts. “The quality of his game will ultimately define him, and it won’t be about the villain status.”

But the ratings are much more than just the Heat becoming basketball’s version of the Yankees. Stern thinks a plethora of great story lines, coupled with the bad economy keeping more people home and watching TV, has led to the massive ratings growth.

And the timing couldn’t be better to have ratings strength, as there should be more bidders for the NBA’s next TV deal—with Fox looking to pump up its sports offerings either through FX or a new sports network, and of course, the Comcast-NBCU merger.

“I would say all sports rights holders see the strengthening of Versus as a good thing for the industry,” Stern says. (I imagine him trying to mask the massive smile a newly pumped-up bidder creates for sports properties.)

But while the NBA has this great momentum, there seems to be just one thing in the near future that could halt it: no hoops. Like the NFL, the NBA has a labor situation to settle, as its current deal with players is up this summer. And Stern says that he will absolutely be watching how the NFL dealings play out— especially in the public forum.

“We are intensely interested and will see what we can possibly learn from it,” he acknowledges.

But if there were to be a work stoppage, I found out one thing he won’t be doing to pass the time. His buddy Tim Armstrong at AOL just bought the Huffington Post, so I asked him if we could expect to see a David Stern byline there before long.

“I won’t have a regular blog anytime soon— I have a full-time job,” he says with a laugh.

Bummer. I would have loved to see what Mark Cuban would have said in the comments section.

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