Tonight, the Boston Celtics have an opportunity to win the 2007-2008 NBA Championship against the Los Angeles Lakers. The game will likely draw huge ratings and put an exclamation point on a terrific, renaissance season for the NBA.
But not all news is good for commissioner David Stern. After the first game of the NBA Finals (and a spectacular game at that - pitting Paul Pierce against Kobe Bryant), the Tim Donaghy scandal worsened. Donaghy, who has now been under investigation by the FBI for over a year, claimed that the other referees fixed NBA games... citing a critical elimination Game 6 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings (the Lakers won that game, then won Game 7 and went on to win the championship).
AdAge released a poll this week that was conducted before the Donaghy scandal - and it reveals a huge brand problem for David Stern that surely is worsened by Donaghy's claims: 41% of NBA fans say the league alters games and 26% say the Lakers-Celtics finals a setup. Wow.
Those are troubling numbers... but they are also conflict the success the NBA has seen over the past year (viewership, ticket sales, etc). And the NBA isn't the only league with problems:
- The NFL's integrity has been questioned with the Spygate scandal and the league has had a long-running problem with players and the legal trouble
- Major League Baseball's massive steroid problems were aired publicly and have ruined the era's best hitter (Barry Bonds) and best pitcher (Roger Clemens)
- The NHL has neither problem, but playoff games draw lower ratings that ESPN's rerun of past Word Series of Poker events
So does any of this really matter? Ultimately the health of the league is (mostly) predicated on talent and competition. The Donaghy scandal hasn't deterred viewers for basketball. Too many Michael Vicks and Pacman Jones haven't made the NFL any less popular. And steroids likely contributed to baseball's resurgence. The only sport lacking a major scandal is the only sport struggling to stay afloat.
For the NBA, one thing is apparent: the players drive the league. Despite Donaghy (and whatever other external events occur) - fans want to see great athletics and great athletes. As long as Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Lebron James and other stars continue to play, people will continue to watch.