Inherent Flaws in Sports Nielsen Ratings

Not exactly a shocking headline, but with the playoffs bringing TV ratings to the forefront it’s relevant. Every news outlet that reports TV ratings for sports events documents both the rating and number of viewers, usually adding the annual change in each number.

Maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine, or I’m making too big a deal of it, however the annual change in the number of viewers is a biased statistic that often masks poor ratings. The Nielsen rating is based on the percent of TV households that are tuned in, a relative measure, while the number of viewers is an absolute measure.

While the viewership number includes households with more than one viewer, the number of Nielsen TV households has grown slightly year over year, which will inherently boost the viewership number. I’m admittedly making a few assumptions here, as I’m not intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Nielsen process. Looking at the year over year ratings and viewership numbers, the only explanations are: more TV households, a change in viewership patterns, and/or change in Nielsen’s viewership calculation.

In any of the above cases, the total viewer number is not a good year over year indicator because it ignores the relative changes in the system. A better metric is share – the percent of TV households watching TV at the time that are viewing a program. Though programming faces different competition each year, its a better indicator of what the population is watching.

With all the inherent flaws of the Nielsen sampling process that the media industry has come to accept – for the time being, at least – harping on this point may not be worth it. But when ratings are decreasing and every story at there makes a point to mention that viewership is flat or viewership is up, the stat must be taken with a grain of salt. The lesson – some sports are struggling on TV more than they lead on.

Advertisements

Celtics Become Road Warriors

Venues change, series change, but the recipe to win does not. It’s very basic, the team who’s role players and bench make the biggest contribution, that has a decided three point advantage or rebounding edge, and can hit big shots to stop a run wins the game. Home, away, higher seed, lower seed, MVP, Coach of the Year, no matter what. Boston did all of the above Saturday night in a dominant 94-80 win in Detroit, that elusive first playoff road win.

Boston’s second unit won this game in the first quarter. The Celts started with 11 straight points out of the gate, and led 15-4 at the 5:34 mark of the first. A minute prior to that Kevin Garnett exited with two early fouls, followed to the bench by Ray Allen a minute later, also with two quick ones. Led by Rodney Stuckey, Detroit reeled off 13 consecutive points in a four minute span. Already up against the wall after losing at home in Game Two, facing the pressure of not having won a road game all postseason, with two of its three stars on the bench in foul trouble, having handed away an 11 point lead, Boston easily could have wilted right here. Likewise, Detroit had a chance to stomp them.

Instead, the Boston reserves – James Posey, Sam Cassell, and Glen Davis – led a 10-0 run to close the quarter. Boston led 25-17 and never looked back. Detroit made runs the rest of the game, but right there the game had a chance to either way. Boston not only responded, its role players, who failed to show up in Game Two , responded.

Detroit’s offense played abysmal. Out of sync consistently, the Pistons had chances to cut into Boston’s lead, which bloated to 18 at halftime and stayed in double digits most of the second half, but could not string together good offensive possessions at any point in the game. Billups and Prince killed the Pistons in different ways. Billups, perhaps still hampered by the hamstring injury that forced him to miss a game in Orlando last series, sat for long stretches of the game as Stuckey stepped up and played a great game in his stead. However, when Billups played he hurt the team. Saunders inserted Billups with 5:30 left for a last desperation run. After the Pistons trimmed the lead to 9 and made a defensive stop, Billups immediately turned the ball over. He then missed a 3-pointer and another jumper on two of the next three possessions. That turnover and missed three killed Detroit’s chances. Either possession would have Boston under pressure, something they have not responded to well on the road late in games. Blame Saunders for looking to Billups late in the game after sitting most of the way, blame Billups for not hitting the big shot, and perhaps not looking for teammates that had better nights than he.

Prince flat out stunk. No injuries, no excuses. Detroit’s equivalent to Manu Ginobili, Prince is a spark plug that can create matchup nightmares for opponents, and cause disruptions on defense. He only caused nightmares for his own team. 2-11 shooting and four rebounds. While role player performance separates teams, its assumed that the stars will play well. Neither Billups nor Prince stepped up.

Credit Boston for hitting a few big shots, and more importantly grabbing six offensive boards in the fourth quarter. Each time Detroit made them sweat, someone stepped up with a big shot – even Ray Allen found the net late in the game. The offensive rebounds though, broke Detroit’s back. When you are trying to come back from a double-digit deficit against a quality team, nothing is more deflating than making a defensive stop and not grabbing the rebound. Getting two consecutive stops is extremely difficult. More importantly, Boston ran more precious seconds off the clock each time.

And how can Piston fans boo throughout this game. The crowd marred a potentially historic night with the city hosting the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA playoffs, and a baseball game simultaneously. Detroit’s performance warranted the boo birds after the game, or late in the fourth, but booing the team in the first half and third quarter, the game still within reach, is unacceptable. A day ago they controlled the series thanks to a big road win. Talk about fickle.

Monday night Detroit is back up against the wall, a familiar position. They trailed Philadelphia 2-1 in the first round before three straight wins. If Billups is hurt he needs to sit, if not he needs to come to play like a star. It wouldn’t hurt if Rasheed Wallace stepped up and called for the ball in a big spot either. He plays good, but not up to his potential. Wallace is capable of taking over a game offensively, what better time than now.

Lebron Needs Help

Classic sudden death playoff games break one of two ways, the game creates a legend or a legend makes the game. Sunday, one legend and one superstar made the game. Forget Bird vs. Wilkins from ’88, go back to Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones in 1963 to find the only other time two players scored over 40 points in a Game Seven. Add Lebron and Pierce to the annals after an epic duel in Boston.

James outdid Pierce with 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds to 41, 5, and 4, but the Pierces’ Celtics got the best of the Cavs 97-92 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a game featuring two stars at their best, a 38-year-old forgotten role player made the biggest shot, and was the difference in the game. PJ Brown buried an open jumper with 1:21 left to give Boston a three-point cushion. Off a timeout, Delonte West, the only other Cav to show up Sunday, missed a good look at a three, turning the game into a Celtic foul shooting contest for the final minute. Brown, who didn’t even play in the NBA until February this season, finished with 10 points, including six in the final stanza.

He took a few bad shots, maybe fell in love with the three ball too much in the fourth, should have pulled up before his last ill-fated drive to the basket, and as Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, missed a boxout on the crucial jump ball late in the game. However, Lebron can answer any criticism levied toward him with a simple question – where’s the help?

The 23-year-old now knows how Jordan felt his first 5 or 6 years in the league, except there is no Pippen on this team. Cleveland stinks. It’s a disgrace what surrounds Lebron. Forget 2010, he may be better off on the Knicks right now, and that’s saying something. Ben Wallace is no longer a rebounding and defensive monster, yet remains an offensive liability. Sczerbiak did not score. Did Ilgauskas even play in the second half? Many people forget the Cavs actually have two former Number 1 draft picks on the team. Clearly the GM who took Joe Smith is no longer employed. Explain to me how Anderson Varejeo and Sasha Pavlovic held out for new contracts before the season. Danny Ferry could dig into the D-League for better talent, or find a sharp-shooter like Boston’s Eddie House in free agency. Though spotty at times, West gave a valiant effort, the only other Cav that actually played like he wanted to win at all costs.

Without help, James almost did it all by himself. Scoring aside, he came up with two big steals in the second half, the second leading to a dunk that trimmed the Celtic lead to 89-88, the closest Cleveland would get. He skied for clutch rebounds after painfully watching former rebound legend fail to box out, allowing Boston to tip back offensive rebounds and maintain possession, forcing Cleveland to get multiple defensive stops.

In the press conference, James intimated the team needs to improve. He handled it with class, shouldering the blame, giving credit to Pierce, critiquing his own game and where it needs to improve. The bottom line is clear, get this man help. Ferry has cap flexibility, he has the biggest star in the world to entice players to come, get it done. At this point, forget finding a Pippen, just improve this make the rest of this team NBA-caliber.

Boston again escaped, this time hiding behind Pierce. Ray Allen was admitted to the Witness Protection Program, only to emerge for a few late-game foul shots. Garnett played decent, but 13 points, 13 rebounds hardly says Big Ticket. If Tim Duncan puts those numbers up in Game 7 tonight, he’ll be killed and the Spurs will lose. To my surprise, Rajon Rondo stepped up with a solid game, enough to keep playoff vet Sam Cassell glued to the bench, though Cassell’s putrid performance in this series also contributed to that.

8-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. No team who played decisive games in the first two rounds ever won the NBA title. The Celtics need to shape up immediately, or this dream season will end. Detroit will get a game in Boston, in fact they will get one of the first two. That’s what the Pistons do. Billups is rested, Lebron is out of the way, Detroit is ready. If Boston intends to advance, the Celtics have to show up on the road. 69 points for a 66-win team is unacceptable, especially in a Game Six against a mediocre, at best, defensive team. Garnett’s legacy is at stake. Rewind before the season, skeptics quietly questioned that none of Boston’s Big Three had advanced to the NBA Finals, and none was known for knocking down the big shot. Well, no need to wonder quietly anymore. Pierce answered the bell, Allen had his bell rung, and the verdict is out on KG. He has not played like a Hall of Famer, has not looked for the ball with the game on the line, and has not stepped up when he had his chance. The season ends in six games unless that changes.

Spurs Force Game Seven

Arguably the best second round match-up in the NBA playoffs, going to a decisive Game Seven, yet can this series be called a classic if the first six games were all won by the home team by double digits? Since the first games of a playoff series have never been decided by 10 or more points, its hard to say. Not a close game in the group. We’ll leave that debate for after the series.

Game Six played out much like the rest of the games. The third quarter decided the game. Why even play the first half in this series. Each game was tight at halftime, before the home team pulled ahead in the third and finished off the win in the fourth. Most games turned to blowouts in the third. Energized crowd, careless turnovers by the road team, withering under the pressure, big shots by the home team.

The Hornets opened the half with three quick turnovers – more than the entire first half – and only managed 12 points in the quarter. San Antonio did not fully capitalize until late in the third, ending the period on a 7-0 run that they extended to 13-0 with two quick threes to start the fourth, pushing the lead to an insurmountable 21 points. Duncan had a vintage 20-point, 15-rebound game. He owned the glass, hit big shots when he needed, but more importantly efficiently passed off when double teams came, opening opportunities for the rest of the team, accumulating six assists on the way.

Giniboli and Parker played their usual solid games. The Argentine throwing six three-point daggers at Byron Scott’s crew, stepping up in a big game to nobody’s surprise. San Antonio expects big efforts from its Big Three. The big road-home disparity is with the role players. Ime Udoka chipped in with 13 points in a solid 21 minutes off the bench, coming up with a big block and two baskets during the second half stretch when the Spurs put the game away. Bowen played solid defense on everyone he matched up, and Kurt Thomas snared 9 boards.

Meanwhile, Paul’s supporting cast failed to provide any support. CP3 had a relatively low key 21 point, 8 assist night. Low-key by his now unfathomable expectations. Chandler shot 7-8 from the field for 14 points, but he should give most of those points to Paul. The point guards ability to drive, draw defenders, and make pinpoint passes to setup easy dunks enable Chandler to shine. Scott’s bench was awful, Jannero Pargo did not belong on the court last night, struggling to make anything happen. West failed to duplicate his coming of age performance in Game Five, before Robert Horry delivered a knock out blow to his back.

Explaining why teams play markedly different at home and on the road is difficult. The movie Hoosiers sums it up, the basket is the same height, the court is the same size, the players are all the same. Yet these two teams – and the Celtics – take on two completely different personalities based on the venue. In this series, halftime started a snowball effect of problems that became an avalanche as the quarter went on. Momentum builds, and the road team starts to buckle under the pressure.

As the Spurs pulled away, West took a shot to the back from Horry on a back screen that West did not see coming. Suffering from back problems, West took a few minutes to get on his feet before heading to the locker room for the night. Stop the conspiracy theories, Horry did not take a cheap shot. Yes, it was blind, and he probably put a little extra oomph behind it because he knew West did not see him, but that’s normal. Every NBA player does that. The fact West had a bad back did not matter. If it was Chandler, Horry does the same thing. Let the play go. It may b a little cheap, but falls well within the realm of being “part of the game”. Expect West to play Monday night.

Throw experience out the window Monday night, its the Spurs first road Game Seven during the Duncan era, unchartered territory. Expect the stars to shine, and the crowd to rise. Outside of that, no certainties. Which role players will step up? Does Horry have another big shot left in him? And can Duncan rebound from three subpar road performances in the Big Easy?

Why Cavs Can Beat Boston

Two or three losses makes you think, at four its a steak, now Boston’s road problems are a troubling trend, following its fifth straight post-season road loss in Cleveland, evening up the Eastern Semifinal at two games apiece. Home-road dichotomy aside, the Celtics find themselves in trouble because they wilt under pressure.

Boston trailed by 3 points after the third quarter. They have three All-Star, superstar players, Cleveland has one, who continues to struggle by his standards. Logic says the Celtic trio steps up, makes big plays, closes the game out, and take control of the series. Yet offensively challenged Anderson Varejao outscored Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett combined in the deciding 4th quarter. Not a tremendous feat considering Allen and Garnett were shutout, attempting only three total shots. That’s Boston’s problem, nobody wants the ball in crunch time. Same situation during Game 4 in Atlanta, reluctance to take the big shot.

The Cavs don’t suffer from that problem. Despite shooting an historically poor shooting performance in the series, Lebron wants the ball no matter how many he misses, and he’s not afraid to the deciding shot, or take it hard to the basket. Like a preying animal, James smelt blood late in the fourth, and sunk his teeth into the entire Celts defense, driving by Pierce and Posey, before giving Garnett – the Defensive Player of the Year – a facial with a powerful, rim rattling signature dunk. A microcosm of the game, Boston on its heels, Cleveland on the attack.

Despite the road problems, Boston has continued to dominate at home, playing like a completely different team. But as the road losses mount, the pressure to win at home builds, and if it comes down to a close game, Cleveland has its go-to guy, but where will Boston turn? Monday night you would not have known KG was even on the floor in the fourth quarter if Lebron didn’t posterize him on that dunk.

All season Boston proved me, and many critics, wrong. Could Rondo run the point, would age catch up with them, can this team play defense? They answered each question emphatically. The last unanswered questions, none of the stars has ever won big in the playoffs and who takes the last shot, may sting Doc Rivers’ squad. Let’s say the Celts are in trouble if Rondo leads the team in scoring again.

Spurs Bounce Back, Game Four Keys

Nobody envisioned the defending champs would go down without making this a series. Returning home following two decisive losses, where New Orleans made San Antonio appear old and slow, raising at least a few doubts about its longevity in this postseason, the Spurs responded. Gregg Poppovich made two noticeable adjustments, moving Bruce Bowen off Chris Paul to defend Peja Stojakovic and starting Sixth Man of the Year Bruce Bowen. Both paid dividends, but neither deserve credit for the win.

Putting Bowen on Stojakovic is admitting that nobody will stop Chris Paul, the key is containing his supporting cast. Taking away his weapons, forces Paul to create his own shots, minimizing the easy opportunities he creates for others. As expected, Paul played another awesome game, dicing up the slower Tony Parker for 35 points. However, Paul took 25 shots, a total he eclipsed only 7 times all season, and he failed to reach double digit assists (9). Less opportunities for those around him, Stojakovic in particular, who was held to eight points on 2-7 shooting, both personal lows for this post-season.

Ginobli dominated in his first post-season start, slashing his way to 31 points and six assists. We can argue the merits of starting versus providing a spark off the bench, the biggest advantage from starting Ginobli is that he was on the court for almost 40 minutes, 10 more than he averaged the first two games. The Argentine changes the game when he is on the floor, the Spurs need him in this series, and for the rest of these playoffs. If starting him means more total minutes of impact, then Pop has to start him.

While the Bowen change improved the team defense, New Orleans still managed 99 points, in line with its performance in the first two games. The difference in Game Three was San Antonio’s offense. Parker exuded the same confidence he showed against Phoenix, not hesitating when the defense gave him shot opportunities, driving to the basket hard, forcing the action rather than waiting for it to come to him. He matched Ginobli with 31 points, adding 11 assists.

Tim Duncan did not break out with big game after he was virtually non-existent in the first two games, he did all the little things – the fundamentals. New Orleans insists on doubling down on Duncan, in Game Three he adeptly drew defenders and passed off. Defensively, he stepped up, notching 13 boards and 4 blocks, standing up to David West and Tyson Chandler, who each outplayed Duncan in the Big Easy.

San Antonio feeds off Duncan, the entire team looked more comfortable as he looked more comfortable. Overall, passing was crisp, shot selection was better, and the Spurs played a consistent 48 minute game. Another overlooked stat, the third quarter. In the first two games, New Orleans blew the doors off San Antonio out of halftime, on Thursday night, the Spurs won the third and won the game. Playoff games are won in the second half – though Boston proved last night, they can be lost in the first half. Coming out of the half weak killed the champs the first two games, and may have saved them last game.

This is not a series until San Antonio can win Game Four. Unless Duncan can manage one of those 30+ point, 20+ rebound performances, where the team jumps on his back, Parker and Ginobili have to step up to the occasion, play with confidence, shoot well, and get to the basket. I’ll reiterate, as I have all year, they are the champs until beaten.

Western Playoff Stampede

San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans have a chance to end the most lopsided Western Conference playoff round in recent memory. Bad enough the lower seeds have only won three games, six of the 12 games have been decided by double figures – three happen to be in the Utah-Houston series. So much for the anyone can win the conference claim.

Denver never gave Los Angeles a match. The Nuggets self-destructed, losing every aspect of the game except technical fouls. Combined with the Laker discipline and execution, with Denver’s selfish play, lack of discipline and lack of ball movement, it adds up to a sweep. Carmelo Anthony was right – his team, top to bottom, quit.

Dallas traded the farm for 7.3 points, 6.3 assists, and a nice view of the Chris Paul show. Oh yeah, forgot that ejection. That sums up Jason Kidd’s performance in this series. Paul makes Kidd look old, totally dominating him on both ends of the court at will. Less prominent, though as imposing, Dallas has no equal for David West either. Josh Howard disappeared into a cloud of smoke that only thickened after his untimely comments. The coach is on the hot seat, the star point guard doesn’t belong on the same court as his counterpart, the Small Forward lacks any judgment, throw in two superstars on the other team, adds up to New Orleans coasting in five tonight.

Forever the playoff goat, Tracy McGrady unfairly shouldered the blame for his teams inability to win a playoff series prior to this year. However, he earned that blame against Utah, scoring 1 point in the combined fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Rockets are banged up . Yes, Utah has a solid team up and down the roster. But if they hang in the game until the final minute, McGrady has to close it out. More and more it looks like he’ll never live down that comment about the Pistons, up three games to one in 2003 while with Orlando. If Houston extends the series, Utah will not lose at home twice.

The mother of all first round series, San Antonio and Phoenix. Last week I wrote about a scintillating Game One that the Spurs pulled out in double overtime, best game of the year. Phoenix responded with a strong start in Game Two, then went on vacation for six quarters. Always consistent, ready to pounce on the opponent, San Antonio erased a a double-digit deficit in Game Two to win easily, before blowing the doors of the arena early in Game Three. Nash and company recovered in Game Four, but beating San Antonio four straight in the playoffs, without home court is daunting.  Unable to stop the penetration of Parker and Ginobili, the Suns become susceptible to easy shots, and kick outs for three. The defending champs took Sunday off, expect them to rebound tonight. Shaq has played pedestrian this series, failing to make a significant contribution on either side of the floor. No longer an offensive threat, too slow to play consistent defense. Losing Grant Hill, forever injured, hurts Phoenix tremendously on defense, its best answer to the younger, quicker Parker. Prior to Sunday, the Suns role players – Barbosa and Diow – failed to show up, players they need in order to win. Of any team trailing 3 games to 1, this team has the best chance to at least extend the series. They need a full team effort, and someone needs to control the perimeter on defense to slow down the Spurs attack.

Round Two is shaping up with two intriguing matchups, then again, we thought Round One was too.