Who ARE These Guys?
traditionally low-profile teams have risen to top of the NBA, NHL
The month of June brings the championship series of two of the four or five major pro sports leagues in America: the NBA Finals, and the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final. As with any league, there are legendary franchises, and there are up-and-comers; some that are steadily above average, and some that are cellar dwellers. Theoretically, every franchise could win, regardless of pedigree and prior success.
When you think “NBA,” you think of the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, and maybe a couple of others. The NHL has classics like the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens (say it with a French accent), and another round of other long-timers. Yet, the casual fan tuning in to the title rounds this season saw ... Golden State, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Nashville. For the most part, the casual fan might say, “Who?”
Let us clear up something from the start: the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers feature perhaps the two or three most-popular NBA players in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and (of course) LeBron James – one of the most famous athletes on Earth. This is the third-straight year the two teams have matched-up in the Finals, unprecedented for two particular teams in NBA history. These teams are not exactly ringers representing the best of pro basketball.
However, for most of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s, the notion of Golden State and Cleveland exhibiting the cream of the basketball crop was absurd. You might have thought a series of miraculous upsets had occurred in the playoffs. Even with a Chippewa Valley sports store seemingly having more Curry and James jerseys available than those of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the franchises are still not in the league’s pantheon. There are probably sports fans whose enthusiasm for watching the NBA Finals is lessened due to the lack of a classic “brand” of a team.
Sure, the Pittsburgh Penguins came into this season as defending Stanley Cup champs, and have three other such wins since the ‘90s (including a first over my former favorite team, the now-departed Minnesota North Stars). Yet, even with that résumé and the presence of perhaps the highest-wattage NHL star in Sidney Crosby, they are still in hockey’s upper-middle-class at best. The Nashville Predators? They play hockey in Tennessee, you ask? True statement: They’ve had a team for about two decades. And, they throw catfish on the ice when the team scores.
The temptation when smaller-market, newer, and/or historically underachieving teams make their league’s championship round is to ask “Is this good for the (NBA/NHL/MLB/NCAA)?” – especially when it comes to TV ratings. Hard-core and solid fans will always tune in to see who takes the title; it is the casual fan who more likely needs broad familiarity to get them paying attention with so much else in the media competing for their time. On the other hand, ratings were up this year for both finals, perhaps due to the return appearances by three of the four teams.
However, what are the leagues supposed to do? They expanded to newer and smaller markets, and they never kick out poorly operated teams; all teams have the potential to reach the championship round. Should a rule be placed that one big-market/legend team always get a spot in the Finals? Should the Yankees and Red Sox automatically play a semifinal to guarantee one will definitely be in the World Series? That is definitively putting ratings ahead of competition.
We live in the part of the country with teams that will draw such national complaints. If the Brewers, Bucks, Twins, Wild, or Timberwolves were playing to win it all, pundits would note the problem this presents. Do you think a Brewers World Series win is a “problem”? You would watch; then again, would you watch Tampa Bay and San Diego in the Series? Perhaps it is a ratings problem, but that is the way the game goes.
If you find yourself lacking interest in a championship round’s participants, always consider the following example. In 2001, a team considered historically mediocre rode a surprise young quarterback to a title, though many wondered if they were a fluke. If you ignored the story, you missed the beginning of the run of ... the New England Patriots. You never know who could be next.