LINsert Your Own Superlative Here

Breakout NBA star Jeremy Lin is drawing big audiences, could generate big money for media buyers
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Ryan Seacrest taking a year-long sabbatical from work. NBC winning this season’s primetime ratings race. Keith Olbermann not ticking off his bosses. These are all about as probable as what has happened with a kid named Jeremy Lin.

“Linsanity” has swept the nation in what is one of the ultimate “rags-to-riches” stories the NBA—heck, sports—has ever seen. Aside from resuscitating the Knicks—who play in the league’s biggest market— and their season, Lin has broken barriers in becoming the NBA’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent.

“His unlikely, some might say implausible, Rudy-like ascent [has been] fun to sit back and enjoy,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “Our fans around the world are getting a strong sense of the internationalization of our game.”

The commissioner isn’t the only one who has taken notice, as top executives from ESPN and Turner Broadcasting all have that—with apologies to Charlie Sheen—“Linning” feeling. “I think he’s a great story,” said David Levy, president, sales, distribution and sports for Turner. “Five weeks before, no one had heard of this guy and the Knicks were going in the wrong direction.”

Norby Williamson, ESPN executive VP, programming & acquisitions, has already benefi ted from Lin’s sudden rise to stardom. The network’s telecast of the Feb. 10th game between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers drew about 3 million viewers, up 36% from the season average for ESPN telecasts. “You have this phenomenon taking place and you have all different people weighing in on it,” said Williamson. “Derek Jeter is now commenting on Jeremy Lin.”

Even Madison Avenue execs are getting caught up in the hype surrounding the new phenom.

“We see audiences ‘Lincreasing’ across the board,” said Sam Sussman, senior VP, media director at Starcom, pointing to the NBA’s national outlets, regional cable, local broadcast and NBA TV. “We expected ratings to be strong, but then increases have pleasantly surpassed expectations.”

While Lin is already boosting ratings in the Big Apple, his story hasn’t yet started generating big money for the league, or for ESPN or Turner Broadcasting’s TNT, buyers say.

“I’m sure they didn’t factor that into their estimates,” when upfront ad sales were done, said Maureen Bosetti, executive VP for national broadcast at Optimedia. In the scatter market, “it could be worth a good amount of money. They should be capitalizing on this,” she said. “I actually watched [Lin] the other night, and I haven’t watched the Knicks in years. It’s pretty amazing that this guy has come out of nowhere.”

Locally, MSG Network has experienced huge ratings increases since Lin was inserted into the Knicks starting lineup Feb. 6. Ratings were up 109% for Lin’s first six starts, leading some to think he could be the person who finally brings an end to the network’s carriage dispute (still unresolved at presstime) with Time Warner Cable. (MSG and MSG+ went dark on TWC on Jan. 1, which has the second-most subs of any New York area cable operator.)

Lin is generating comparisons to another transcendent sports figure, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, although Williamson said we’re not there yet.

“It’s not to the level of ‘Tebowmania,’” he said. “But if he keeps going… it might be a ‘Son of Tebow.’”

“[Hollywood] would throw this [script] out,” said Levy of Lin’s improbable rise to stardom. “They wouldn’t write that story.” —with reporting by Jon Lafayette

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