TV and the NBA in the '70s

Television viewing boomed in the 1960s and ABC’s flagship program Wide World of Sports brought many sports into the American mainstream. Seeking to capitalize on the growing TV sports market, the NBA signed a contract with ABC in 1964 to broadcast a handful of their games (including the league Finals). In 1969, they extended their contract with ABC, netting them $3 million per season (far less than the $16.5 million earned by Major League Baseball or the $22 million doled out to the National Football League).[1]

To many viewers, coverage of the few nationally televised games appeared second-rate. Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford called ABC announcer, Chris Schenkel, “a source of despair to basketball fans for his failure to appreciate the sport’s nuances and his obvious unwillingness to do the necessary homework to overcome this deficiency.”[2] In fact, as Deford pointed out, ABC’s entire method of covering the sport was faulty. As a company, ABC “approached a basketball game exactly as it does a football game – when, in fact, the problems involved are quite different. Football,” Deford insisted, “is a well-constructed drama, with neat scenes and acts (plays and drives). Basketball is more like a ballet, fluid and cumulative.”[3]

NBA ON ABC INTRO - 1970-71

ABC Sports president Roone Arledge worked hard to improve NBA coverage. “Arledge had not been a basketball fan,” David Halberstam wrote in his book Breaks of the Game. “But he was quickly impressed by the beauty of the game.”[4] Arledge made an important decision in covering basketball. Rather than focus on team rivalries, he insisted on promoting individual matchups – Bill Bradley against John Havlicek and Willis Reed facing Dave Cowens rather than Knicks versus Celtics.

Despite Arledge’s efforts, the NBA was unhappy with their coverage on ABC and sought a more lucrative financial offer. They also demanded that ABC air NBA games on Saturday afternoons, interfering with the station’s lucrative college football lineup. ABC refused and the NBA jumped to CBS for the 1973-74 season, despite Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach’s admonitions to remain loyal. “You don’t really think a man like Roone Arledge is going to take this lying down, do you?” Auerbach asked his fellow owners.[5] In fact, Arledge did not take it lying down, airing a new Sunday edition of Wide World of Sports head-to-head against NBA broadcasts. NBA ratings plummeted, dropping from a 10 rating to an 8.1.[6]

Once the NBA jumped to CBS, the new station put together an odd broadcast lineup, matching play-by-play man Brent Musberger with a variety of former players and personalities. Among the men sitting beside Musberger were Lakers’ star “Hot Rod” Hundley, ABA stalwart Steve “Snapper” Jones, former referee Mendy Rudolph and notoriously acerbic NBA vets like Bill Russell, Rick Barry (who regularly moonlighted as a color commentator when the Warriors exited the playoffs) and Oscar Robertson. No matter who provided commentary, though, ratings continued to suffer, slipping to a 6.4 by 1980 (nearly two points behind college basketball broadcasts that season).[7] One journalist, disappointed in CBS’s presentation of the NBA, claimed that they “present[ed] the pros as a bunch of guys running more or less aimlessly around the court in shiny underwear.”[8]


The NBA stayed on CBS for the rest of the decade, signing a contract in 1978 that would keep the league with the station well into the 1980s. But by decade’s end, the partnership was showing signs of trouble. Not even Red Auerbach’s brilliant “Red on Roundball” segments, in which he introduced concepts like passing, dribbling, shooting, and setting-screens to viewers using NBA legends including Bill Russell, Rick Barry, ‘Dr. J’ Julius Erving, and ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich, could save the NBA on CBS.


When, late in the decade, the Knicks, Bulls, and Lakers struggled to play winning basketball, ratings dipped even further. By 1978, the highest-rated NBA Finals game between the Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Bullets finished 442nd in terms of viewership nationally as the Super Bowl and World Series took 6 of the top 9 spots on prime time television.[9]

CBS responded by showing playoff games on tape delay, famously relegating Magic Johnson’s historic Game 6 performance in the 1980 NBA Finals to a later showing in all but the cities of Los Angeles and Philadelphia.[10] By the 1982-83 season, CBS had reduced the number of nationally televised regular-season games from 18 to just 4.[11]

The arrival of Michael Jordan in 1984, coupled with David Stern’s leadership and the budding rivalry between Boston’s Larry Bird and Los Angeles’ Magic Johnson revitalized the league and, by extension, its media reach. But that was a product of the eighties, not the seventies. In the 1970s, the National Basketball Association struggled to reach fans and, even when games did air, often failed to successfully reel those interested parties in and gain fans for a game struggling for national recognition.

Adam Criblez is the author of the upcoming book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.

Click to pre-order Tall Tales and Short Shorts.

Follow Adam on Twitter @adamcriblez or by using #70sNBA

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[1] Mario R. Sarmento, “The NBA on Network Television: A Historical Analysis.” MA thesis, University of Florida, 1998, 47.

[2] Frank Deford, “ABC and Announcer Chris Schenkel Foul Out With Their Coverage Of NBA Series” Sports Illustrated, 5/24/71

[3] Deford, "ABC And Announcer."

[4] Halberstam, Breaks of the Game, 215.

[5] Quoted in Halberstam, Breaks, 218.

[6] Halberstam, Breaks, 218.

[7] Sarmento, “The NBA,” 63.

[8] William Leggett, “Basketfuls Of Information,” Sports Illustrated, 2/9/76.

[9] Sarmento, “The NBA,” 57.

[10] Halberstam, Breaks, 374.

[11] Sarmento, “The NBA,” 63.

#Television #RooneArledge #FrankDeford #ChrisSchenkel #DavidHalberstam #BrentMusberger #HotRodHundley #SteveJones #MendyRudolph #RickBarry #BillRussell #OscarRobertson #RedAuerbach #JuliusErving #PeteMaravich

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