It seemed like an easy call for ESPN.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant playing in the final game of his storied 20-year career in front of the only fan base he's ever called home. "That was a no-brainer to grab and put into our schedule right from the beginning," said Julie Sobieski, vp of programming for ESPN.
But the Golden State Warriors had other ideas. The darlings of the NBA decided to follow up their first title in 40 years by taking a run at the single-season record for most wins. The potentially record-breaking game will be played Wednesday night in Oakland, just as Kobe takes the court in L.A.
So ESPN decided to call an audible, putting the Warriors' attempt at win No. 73 on ESPN and bumping Bryant to ESPN2.
Ever since the Warriors began the season with a 24-game winning streak, it appeared the team would make a serious run at breaking the Chicago Bulls' 20-year record. The league's TV partners have been more than willing to tag along for the ride, as the Warriors—led by Steph Curry and a high-scoring offense—have been ratings gold all season long.
Three of ESPN's four most-watched games this season—all on ABC—featured the Warriors. Turner meanwhile, averaged 2.5 million viewers for its Warriors telecasts, 39 percent higher than last season. NBA TV's national broadcast of the Warriors' win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday—the channel was made free that night—drew a network record 2.6 million viewers. The numbers are even more impressive on the Warriors' regional sports network, CSN Bay Area. Of the top 60 highest-rated games ever on the channel, 50 are Warriors games from this season.
"Golden State's been a story that we and the whole industry have been paying attention to since November," Sobieski said. "To have it actually culminate in this way on the last day of the regular season is tremendous."
But it almost didn't happen. When the Warriors lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 5, their record dropped to 69-9, giving Golden State the task of winning its final four games to pass the Bulls' 72-10 benchmark. ESPN picked up last Saturday's game against the Grizzlies which saw a come-from-behind Warriors win.
"We were only going to be able to pick up this game if it was relevant to the record," said Sobieski.
And now it is.
"The league was tremendously flexible with us to continue to chase this story," Sobieski added.
ESPN, Turner and NBA TV have combined to air seven Golden State games more than their contracts with the NBA allow. Each network can air a maximum of 10 games of a single team, but the league, having made similar exceptions in the past, started allowing the networks to pick up additional Warriors games (which have been blacked out in the home market and only allowed to air on CSN Bay Area). Golden State's final seven games, including Wednesday night's finale, will be on national television.
"It's storybook," said Sobieski. "We couldn't have scripted it to begin and end in the way it has."