5/12/2016 0 Comments
by Alex Langer
Last week, I looked at a time when college basketball reigned supreme over the National Basketball Association. Today we take a deeper dive into when the NBA took the lead over the NCAA. To recap, throughout the 1970s, college basketball took up the lion’s share of Sports Illustrated covers until 1974. The transition happened between 1974-1976, because after 1975, SI featured the NBA seven more times than the NCAA. At the same time, the 1975 NCAA Championship was one of the highest-rated games of all time, drawing a 21.3 rating, which is almost twice as high as the most recent title game (UNC-Villanova), which only drew a 12.0. So, on the one hand, the NCAA featured more viewership, but on the other, the NBA was clearly becoming more intriguing. While the NBA may not have fully taken over in the latter half of the 70s, the pieces were put in place to ensure NBA dominance in the decades to come.
The case for NBA takeover is a complicated one. SI coverage focused primarily on the NBA, on the career of Bill Walton, who had transitioned from UCLA to the Portland Trail Blazers, and of the drama of the forthcoming NBA-ABA merger. However, no NBA World Championship Series in the 1970s broke the 10.0 average rating mark. Clearly there was a disconnect between the drama of the NBA (and journalistic interest) and the quality of the final product as perceived by fans. So what was happening in the second half of the 1970s to set the stage for NBA dominance?
The first big change was the impending arrival of Bill Walton, one of the greatest college players of all time, to the NBA. Walton’s professional career (and his subsequent injury woes) took up many of the NBA-related SI covers through the second half of the 1970s. In October 1974, SI ran a cover photo of the rookie Walton playing against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Bucks, titled “New Kid on the Block.” The article focused on Walton’s move to the NBA from dominant UCLA, facing off against his fellow UCLA alum Kareem, and how much different the NBA was from the NCAA season. “The NBA isn't the NCAA and its centers need vast quantities of sustenance to help them survive the pounding of an 82-game schedule, three times longer and infinitely more wearing than UCLA’s.” Bill Walton, who had spent years dominating UCLA and the zeitgeist, signaled a new interest in the NBA. SI followed that lead.
Ironically, however, the end of UCLA dominance led to higher interest in the college game. The 1975 title game, the first since Walton graduated, drew a 21.3 rating, more than twice any NBA Finals in the era. SI pointed out that “the coming season may be the most wide-open and interesting since the 1950s…a result of a renewed fanaticism for the college game in every section of the country.” This coincided with the expansion of the tournament to 32 teams, which offered hope to more teams than ever. And yet the NBA factored more into SI’s coverage than the NCAA at a more exciting and open time, a time that saw one of the most-watched NCAA championship games ever.
The NBA’s dominance over SI depended on Walton and the merger, although other greats such as Julius Erving and Kareem made appearances on the cover. Even though in terms of ratings the NBA postseason failed to crack the heights that the NCAA postseason reached, it was clear that the individual stories of the NBA mattered to readers. Walton, finally healthy in Portland, was leading the Trail Blazers to the best record in the NBA in December of 1976, and every mention of him necessarily included individual comparisons to the game’s other greats. “Probably the UCLA graduate was a bit overrated as an instant dominating NBA center, if only because that kind of rare people-[Bill] Russell, the defender; [Wilt] Chamberlain, the overpowering giant; Abdul-Jabbar, the offensive genius-were specialists, while Walton simply did everything well.” At the same time, Kareem made the move to Los Angeles, and the Boston Celtics rediscovered their talent in the post-Russell era, presaging the great rivalry that defined the 1980s. All this pushed the narratives of NBA basketball at a time when the NBA Finals were so poorly watched that CBS put them on tape delay by the end of the decade. Yet the biggest reason for the dawn of an NBA renaissance was the merger with the ABA under Commissioner Larry O’Brien.
Between 1974 and 1976, O’Brien primed the pump for decades of NBA dominance. “Consider all that has happened since he took the job in April 1975: the resolution of the Oscar Robertson antitrust suit that could have resulted in devastating damage claims; the signing of a collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA Players Association that is the most progressive in pro sports; a merger with the American Basketball Association that adds four teams and promises exciting new levels of competition," contended SI reporter Ray Kennedy in 1976. “Toss in a new two-year, $10.5 million TV pact with CBS and enough tough, decisive penalties handed out by O'Brien himself to show who's in charge and, well, let's hear it for Big Larry, rookie sports czar of the year!” In addition to the exodus of great players from college basketball (and the looming inclusion of Larry Bird to the Celtics, who was featured in an iconic SI cover in 1977, truly kicking off the rivalry years), the NBA-ABA merger added teams and competition to the league. The NBA in 1976 began its ascendancy to a member of the “Big Four” in American sports. Though college basketball retained higher TV ratings through the decade, the NBA captured more of the national headlines. Thus the second half of the 1970s primed the pump for the true dominance of the NBA when the 1980s began.
 http://www.ibtimes.com/march-madness-2016-championship-ratings-down-37-percent-2015-2348827, http://www.statista.com/statistics/219645/ncaa-basketball-tournament-games-by-tv-ratings/.
 Paul Putnam, “That’s No Way to Talk to Teacher,” Sports Illustrated October 14, 1974.
 Curry Kirkpatrick, “Just like the Good Old Days,” December 2, 1974.
 Curry Kirkpatrick, “Healthy, Wealthy, and Size,” SI December 13, 1976.
 Ray Kennedy, “A Celtic Rookie Puts it Together,” SI October 25, 1976.