If Thursday night's NBA Finals opener is close, so close that Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett or some other Laker or Celtic ends it with a winning shot, something else will start:
The whining from media members and talk-show callers that many kids probably couldn't stay up late enough to watch the dramatic finish.
That's because this contest, with a tipoff time of 9:07 p.m. EST, probably won't conclude until after 11:30 p.m. The same goes for every other game in this series. The same goes for most championship-level events these days, including the World Series and NCAA men's basketball final. The exceptions? The Super Bowl, which usually starts close to 6 p.m. Eastern and ends around 10 p.m. And the Stanley Cup finals. Good thing the NHL is holding its opening faceoffs close to 8 p.m. EST; Game 5, with its three overtimes, still ended at 12:43 a.m.
"This creates the dilemma that sports and television have lived with forever," said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, who participated in many of these negotiations and now runs a sports consulting firm. "Gee, if you want to attract young viewers, who have a school night, why are you starting so late in the evening? The answer is, as important as that consideration might be, the sports feel they have an obligation to maximize their revenues. They schedule their start times to make sure they can generate highest possible revenue dollars from television."
So although Pilson says NBA commissioner David Stern and his contemporaries aren't oblivious to the argument for earlier games, "it's a balancing of factors."
On balance, the major sports leagues and their television partners have determined that later games increase viewership. So don't expect to see afternoon, or early evening, start times in any major sport anytime soon.
"The start time is 9:07 to maximize the opportunity for fans, both East Coast and West Coast, to watch the games," said Mike Bass, the NBA's senior VP of marketing communications.
Sometimes fans and media in the major Eastern cities take a parochial view of this subject, forgetting anyone else exists. Close to 50 percent of the viewing population lives in the Eastern time zone, but that number has been shrinking, and is expected to shrink further.
"About 20 percent of the country is on the West Coast," Pilson said. "There, starting a sports event at 5 in the afternoon is near-death. Everyone is stuck on the freeway somewhere."
Starting an event at 6 p.m. West Coast time gives those viewers a better chance to catch at least some of the action live. Yet the leagues and networks argue that the later start time is beneficial on the East Coast as well.
Artie Bulgrin, the senior VP for research and sales development for ESPN on ABC, has had to answer questions about this issue from inside his organization as well as out.
"The audiences are greater, essentially, the later you go," Bulgrin said. "Within reason. We're not going to broadcast at 3 in the morning. But every demographic group improves as you go later."
Well, every one but one. Sometimes, the viewership of the 55-plus demographic drops off.
Not the viewership of kids.
Bulgrin cited ESPN's analysis of the the ratings of six-to-17 year-olds during the 2006-07 NBA season.
That age group registered a 0.4 rating for games that started between noon and 6 p.m. The rating jumped to 0.7 for games that started between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. And it jumped to 1.1 for games that started between 9 p.m. and midnight.
"It is counterintuitive," Bulgrin said. "It goes against conventional wisdom."
It is not isolated, however. Bulgrin found the same effect when studying recent World Series.
Bulgrin speculates that more children are control of television sets in their rooms these days, and that more adults are ending their days later, and thus starting their viewing later.
PBT: San Antonio executed its game plan well in Game 1, shutting down Grizzlies star Zach Randolph.
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