Big statement for small markets

In October — just before the NBA season began — commissioner David Stern cited contraction as a possible solution to the league’s anticipated labor strife, eliminating teams to reduce the number of franchises.

“That set predictable panic in some small-market cities,” ESPN wrote, asking Stern whether contraction should be “a chilling word in Memphis.”

Well, well, look who’s expanding (into the playoffs’ second round, up 1-0) now.

A mere nine months after Cleveland wasn’t big enough to contain LeBron James’ talents, some smaller franchises are making considerable noise in the playoffs, striking a blow for the sports world’s Davids against the Goliaths. And in the process, they’re helping diminish an old canard about how such markets are automatically a drag on TV ratings, with the first round boasting the league’s best numbers in years.

Memphis’ upset of San Antonio set up a second-round matchup against Oklahoma City that, based strictly on the numbers, ought to be a nightmare for the host networks. While they might be the two most entertaining teams still playing, according to Nielsen rankings of the 210 TV markets in the US, they also happen to represent cities No. 45 and 48 — a puny pair whose combined 1.4 million households are less than a fifth the size of New York.

TV executives tend to be worrywarts, and they prefer featuring the big boys. During San Antonio’s title runs there were private gripes about how the pride of Texas was a “ratings killer.”

These media mavens mostly congregate in New York and Los Angeles — two cities that jointly reach one in nine US TV households — which explains why Spike Lee isn’t the only Manhattan dweller shedding a tear when the Knicks make an early exit. Although many hail from other places, it’s no accident network suits long ago coined the term “flyover states” for the great swatch of land between their bicoastal headquarters.

Up ’til now, though, the playoffs have been all smiles. TNT reported Monday that its coverage through the first round’s 23 games averaged a record 4.2 million viewers — a 32 percent increase over last year. In addition, Nielsen data show the percentage of affluent viewers (or households earning more than $100,000 annually) has also surged, which makes the hearts of advertisers peddling products like luxury cars go pitter-patter.

Such audience gains have come despite not just incursions by Memphis and Oklahoma City, but even-smaller New Orleans — a franchise in such financial distress the league took it over — which extended the Lakers to six games.

As it stands, five top-10 towns — LA, Chicago (No. 3), Dallas (No. 5), Boston (No. 7) and Atlanta (No. 8) — remain in the playoff hunt. Officials are no doubt salivating about the current Boston-Miami faceoff in the East — the Heat having demonstrated it’s possible to attract multitudes from outside your home city, even if that’s motivated by hostility — and the prospect of seeing either of those teams square off against L.A.

For all that, the assumption that second-tier markets depress the TV audience warrants a second look. Football, certainly, has shown its ability to trump parochial interests, with Green Bay triumphing in the most-watched Super Bowl ever.

Nevertheless, the NFL remains in a class by itself ratings-wise, and old concerns about franchise size die hard. Even this year’s playoffs won’t quiet concerns that send owners scurrying toward markets with a larger population and potentially richer local TV deals. As evidence of the latter, look no further than the multibillion-dollar, long-term rights deals recently thrown at the Lakers and Dodgers by Time Warner Cable and FOX, respectively.

That said, watching Memphis or Oklahoma City advance does indicate that smaller-market teams can compete — and a national audience will tune in — if they put an entertaining product on the court, like the young and athletic Thunder. Besides, if Cinderellas traditionally stoke interest in the NCAA tournament, why shouldn’t an upstart like Memphis yield dividends for the NBA?

In the meantime, the simple, shoeless folk living outside the top markets should keep an eye on ratings for Oklahoma-Memphis. Because whichever runt of the media litter wins could help dispel the perceptions that continue to dog and bedevil small-market teams. Twitter: blowryontv.