At last year’s ESPY awards, SNL’s Jay Pharoah, impersonating Jay-Z, got the laugh of the night. Six months after signing Kevin Durant as a client, he bragged, “And now he’s the most famous person in Oklahoma City.”
Indeed he is, though that may not be saying much. The Thunder are big in Oklahoma City—according to the Sports Business Journal, OKC is on track to a second straight TV ratings championship, beating out the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, and Portland Trailblazers with a larger share local viewers. So far, the Thunder’s appeal hasn’t translated into a national following as has the fan base of the Los Angeles Lakers and two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat.
The Thunder aren’t merely the most popular sporting franchise in Oklahoma, unless one includes the University of Oklahoma football team. They’re the only big league team in the state, but so far they haven’t attracted the same grade of celebrities sitting courtside at their home games—the occasional country music star or football coach, but no Jack or Leo like in LA, no Spike Lee or Ben Stiller in New York. SNL alumnus and Tulsa-born Bill Hader is the highest profile Thunder fan, but so far the state’s most famous son, Brad Pitt, has yet to don OKC’s distinctive orange, yellow, and dark blue.
That may change if the Thunder continue at their present pace. OKC has the best record (43-12) in the NBA heading into tonight’s game against LeBron James and the Heat—which pundits are already saying will be the highest rated game of the regular season. (Not much of a stretch, since their first meeting on January 29 at Miami, won by the Thunder 112-95, is the highest rated game of the season so far.) They are ranked number one by the astute Jeff Sagarin of USA Today. (His top five, separated by just 2.67 points, are the Thunder, Pacers, Spurs, Clippers and Heat.) And with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook due to return tonight after losing six weeks to knee surgery in, it’s almost scary to think how good the Thunder could be.
But with or without Westbrook, tonight’s match-up and probably the NBA championship will almost certainly hinge on the play of Durant, who is currently the NBA’s scoring leader and the odds-on favorite to take this year’s MVP trophy away from LeBron James, who’s won four of the last five seasons.
The MVP debate will be front and center when the game’s two best players go mano-a-mano in the Thunder’s home court. So far this season their numbers are close. Durant has average 31.5 points/game to LeBron’s 26.8, but James has been the more accurate field goal shooter, hitting on 57.4 percent to Durant’s 51.0 percent. LeBron leads in assists per game, 6.5 to 5.5 while Kevin has an edge in rebounds, 7.8 to 7.1.
The stats pretty much reflect the closeness of their career numbers with LBJ averaging 27.5 points/game to KD’s 27.1 and 7.2 rebounds/game to Durant’s 6.9 though James has a substantial lead in assists, 6.9 to 3.2.
Individual stats and trophies, though, may mean little to Durant, telling reporters last fall, “I've played in the All-Star Games; I've scored 30 points, 40 points before; had a triple-double before. I feel individually, like stats and stuff, I feel like I did my job with that and I established myself. But it's about winning championships …” James has two rings while Durant’s fingers are ringless, though that will probably change in the off-season as he is engaged to WNBA guard Monica Wright. (Front office basketball executives must already be planning to make bids on their offspring.)
Despite gaudy win-loss records during the past four regular seasons, the Thunder have been little better than mediocre in the postseason, winning 29 of 54 games over that span and losing four of five to the Heat in the 2012 finals. A 26, Durant is three years younger than James and is poised to assume NBA supremacy. Tonight’s game will be an indicator of how serious the Thunder’s bid will be.
ABC executives, whose network will televise the finals, would be overjoyed at a rematch of last year’s Heat-Thunder clash. The league has always made its largest chunk of revenue from the postseason, and postseason ratings are dependent on big stars. The NBA began its boom years in 1978 when Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers met in the finals; during the Michael Jordan years the league flourished with playoff ratings reaching an all-time high in the 1996-97 season. Since then, though, the NBA has been struggling to find the stars to propel them to Jordan-like mega heights.
There’s no question that LeBron James is the biggest ratings-getter in today’s game, and there’s some doubt that Kevin Durant has the star power to replace him. James still leads in sports shoes sales, an estimated $300 million last year, to Durant’s second place $175 million. And though t he returns aren’t in for this season, last year Durant was just fourth in NBA jersey sales, trialing James, Derrick Rose, and Kobe Bryant.
Slowing Durant down is that he doesn’t have anywhere near the TV audience that James enjoys. The Thunder are the biggest thing to hit Oklahoma, but according to a Sports Media Watch survey, their TV market is 28th of 30 teams. They trail not only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia but every other NBA city except Memphis and New Orleans in number of homes with TVs.
Traditionally, the NBA has been dominated by teams that play in the biggest markets; in the 55 years since the Boston Celtics won their first championship in the 1958-59 season, 37 NBA titles were won by just five teams—the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, 76ers, and Bulls. But in the last two seasons, back-to-back titles by the Miami Heat have proven that a team doesn’t have to play their home games in a huge TV market—the Heat’s local TV fan base is estimated to be 16th among the league’s 30 teams—to attract a huge national audience. And the formula was fairly simple: sign a nationally recognized superstar and then win.
OKC is oh so close to having both, and tonight may be their night. Don’t be surprised to see Brad Pitt courtside at Thunder games this spring.