Apr 27, 2012

Spurs Remain Atop Standings, If Not Ratings

Tim Duncan, the Spurs' standout forward, lacks the national star power to draw in interest outside of Texas. Photo by miu3112 via Flickr, used through Creative Commons.

By Forrest Burnson
For Reporting Texas

The San Antonio Spurs, the Western Conference’s top-seeded team in the upcoming National Basketball Association playoffs, bear two noteworthy – and perhaps contradictory – distinctions.

On one hand, the team is the country’s most successful professional sports franchise in the past 15 years, winning nearly 70 percent of its games to edge the New England Patriots of the National Football League for the accolade.

On the other hand, the team’s four championship titles were among the NBA’s least-watched on television. In 2007, when the Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James before he left for Miami) to win their fourth title, the finals received the lowest Nielsen ratings in league history, with the Associated Press declaring the Spurs “a champion everywhere but in the TV ratings” and “too boring to be appreciated.”

The second-lowest rated championship in the NBA? The Spurs’ 2003 title over the New Jersey Nets.

Low network ratings translate into little or no coverage in national media for the Spurs.

“It’s all ratings-driven. It’s become a big joke,” said Buck Harvey, a sports columnist for The San Antonio Express-News. “They just don’t want to hear about the Spurs.”

The low ratings have been partially attributed to the Spurs’ small media market. Even though San Antonio is the seventh most populous city in the United States, Nielsen ranks its local television market at 36th. The Spurs have had good regional ratings on the Fox Sports Southwest network, but in Texas, loyalties remain divided between the Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets.

Despite the team’s consistent success for the past decade, no Spur was among the top 10 players in jersey sales last season.

Some attribute the Spurs’ lack of a fan base outside of San Antonio to the low-key nature of the team’s star players, especially power forward Tim Duncan.

“Duncan is clearly one of the game’s greatest players ever, but he’s not spectacular, just incredibly good,” said Mike Celizic, a columnist for NBC Sports, after the Spurs’ 2007 win.

With headlines like “Tim Duncan’s Sincere Apology Confuses Referee Enough To Eject Him From Game,” and “Tim Duncan Fires Up Teammates With Calm, Moderated, Three-Hour Pep Talk,” the satirical newspaper The Onion has turned the player – an uncharacteristically reserved NBA star with an honors degree in psychology from Wake Forest – into a running gag.

Despite jabs at his demeanor, Duncan has been credited for providing the foundation for the team’s continued success, due in part to his close relationship with coach Gregg Popovich.

The top-seeded team in last year’s playoffs, the Spurs were upset by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. With the recent acquisitions of Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard, the team appears more balanced going into this season’s playoffs, which the Spurs begin Sunday against the Utah Jazz.

For the Spurs, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts. Since the departure of NBA legend David Robinson in 2003, the team’s success has hinged on the trifecta of Duncan, Manu Ginobili of Argentina and Tony Parker of France. None of them holds the same superstar power of Kobe Bryant and James, though Parker’s marriage — and subsequent divorce — to actress and activist Eva Longoria made him more visible outside the basketball arena.

With the Spurs, “you don’t have any controversy, you don’t have people arguing whose team it is or who should take the shot,” Harvey said.

While the Spurs’ lack of an obvious superstar has limited the team’s national appeal, that same team-oriented approach is a big part of the appeal for Spurs fans. “The Spurs play fundamental basketball,” said Josh O’Brien, a San Antonio native and a longtime fan. “The players don’t look for huge endorsement contracts or massive media exposure.”

The team’s virtual anonymity outside of San Antonio may actually be a boon to the players, who avoid the pitfalls of heavy media attention — and criticism.

For Spurs players, Harvey said, “life is a free lunch” in San Antonio.