For the second consecutive week on Thursday, a marquee NBA game was broadcasted nationally without the full cast of principal actors.
The parallels are faint. Carmelo Anthony sat out after slicing a finger that required five stitches in Charlotte on Wednesday night, whereas Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent four-fifths of his starting lineup home with no associated injuries.
But just as the absences of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were supposed to produce a lopsided home win for Miami devoid of drama, Anthony in street clothes seemed to diminish much of the allure of the Knicks-Heat matchup going in because how many solid conclusions can you take away from a game that isn’t really a fair fight? Meanwhile, the commissioner argued, fans tune in to watch superstars, and depriving them of that is insulting.
Much like played out in the Spurs-Heat game the prior week, the Knicks-Heat game on Thursday night was high-grade basketball. To the extent it lacked suspense, it wasn’t because a Melo-less Knicks couldn’t compete with the talent of the Heat, but because Miami couldn’t defend an animate object, while the Knicks moved the ball and drained shots.
Both games were compelling. The San Antonio reserves’ devotion to Popovich’s system without the aid of their offensive catalysts became a captivating storyline, and who wasn’t entertained by the Knicks’ sharpshooting?
The charisma of superstars will always fuel fan interest, especially in the NBA, but the past two Thursdays should serve as evidence to people who get agitated when superstars aren’t in uniform that there’s value in marketing not only marquee players, but teams as brands.
Every week, the NFL draws in millions of viewers on Sundays and Mondays to watch their broadcasts. Some of those viewers can tell you the names of all the offensive linemen and defensive backs on the field, but the vast majority of those who watch nationally are probably unfamiliar with anyone beyond the quarterbacks. But they still watch in eye-popping numbers, because the NFL has sold the game as the product.
This isn’t to say that Tom Brady, the Manning Brothers, Aaron Rodgers or Michael Vick aren’t guys who drive narratives or draw large numbers of viewers. But people watch the NFL because they’ve decided that, within reason, no matter who’s on the field, fans will be treated to an entertaining three hours.
Likewise, millions of people watch college football on Saturday afternoons knowing little other than a few national implications and the tribal histories. Who knows how gargantuan the ratings will be when Notre Dame and Alabama square off in the national championship game next month? How many of those viewers could name more than a couple of starters? How many care that they can’t?
The NBA would be crazy not to capitalize on the charisma of its most exciting players, but there’s also value in remembering that teams and, even more important, the game itself hold great appeal -- as football has proven that over a generation.
That’s one of the things that most bothered me about the commissioner’s response last week. He made an implicit statement that somehow the game was diminished because Duncan, Parker and Ginobili weren’t out there, when the message should’ve been that fans were about to witness the world’s greatest game being played by two of the league’s premier franchises, neither of which will disappoint you.