A final without LeBron James or Steph Curry, curse or blessing for the NBA?

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks shooting in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns in Milwaukee on July 14, 2021


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Without the headliners LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, the NBA final between Phoenix and Milwaukee is less noise, but it is also an unexpected draft for the North American league.

Everything was ready for a star-packed duel between Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, able to boost this end of the championship, after a year 2020 to be forgotten, under the sign of the pandemic.

But Suns and invited each other to the party, aided by an unprecedented wave of injuries, imposing a poster that scared more than one off. For the first time in 11 years, neither James nor Curry are in the final.


After four meetings (the fifth game takes place Saturday in Phoenix), the audiences in the United States are barely higher than that of the least watched edition in the history of the NBA (except 2020), the Spurs-Cavaliers of 2007.

The staggered calendar, which pushes a final at the end of July that usually ends in early or mid-June, makes comparisons complicated.

“Playing or hockey (the NHL final ended on the 7th) in July is not normal,” said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing specialist who teaches at Columbia University. “People are not in front of their screens when they can be outside.”

He also underlines that measuring the audience of a championship to the world public, endowed with a thousand and one means of viewing, using figures of stations lit in the United States does not make much sense.


“New Superstars”

However, it suffices to scrutinize social networks to confirm that the craze is not the same as in previous years, excluding the 2020 parenthesis.

“Large audiences rely on Sunday fans who do not really basketball”, regrets a user on the Reddit platform. “In their brains, they only have room for LeBron and Steph, that’s all.”

However, it is possible that in three or four years, most of the current legends of the league, James (36 years old today), Curry (33), Durant (32), even James Harden (31) or Kawhi Leonard (30) hung up.

“When you have non-traditional teams that people are not familiar with, audiences may drop, but new superstars are crowned,” argues Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse.

During the 2000s, the NBA experienced several catastrophic finals in terms of audience, often with the San Antonio Spurs and their austere image, or the Detroit and their defense which did not appeal to the general public.

This has not stopped the league from increasing its turnover every year, without stopping.

Along the way, the NBA has completed transforming its rules to become a league entirely focused on offense and spectacle, which today offers a pedestal to its new generation of talent.

All the matches of the final have so far been good (tied 2 wins everywhere for the moment), with twists and brilliant actions, like this titanic counter of Giannis Antetokounmpo on the pivot of Phoenix Deandre Ayton.

“A great story”

Already crowned double best player of the championship in 2019 and 2020, Antetokounmpo (26 years old only) did not have so far the status of his glorious elders. The final brings him into this small circle, thanks to his colossal defeat (two matches at 42 and 41 points).

To a lesser extent, Suns back Devin Booker (24) is now close to the top, with 42 points in Game 4.

“Each league should seek to keep the connection with its existing fans, and to establish one with the new ones”, summarizes John Sweeney, professor of sport and communication at the University of North Carolina (UNC).

“The stars are one way” of doing it, as are the “stories” of players or teams, he says. “Giannis has a great story”, Greek, son of Nigerian immigrants, arrived in the United States at 18, perhaps the first fully global star, at home on three continents.

“I’m sure the NBA will find the next formula,” that of the post-LeBron era, says Sweeney. They are not in the final this year, but Nikola Jokic (26), Luka Doncic (22), Trae Young (22) or Jayson Tatum (23) all play in competitive teams.

“The NBA is a league of stars,” recalls Joe Favorito, “and developing a star takes time”, even if you have to temporarily deprive yourself of a few viewers.



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