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Cavs TV Ratings Surge in Cincy, Recalling When Royals Reigned in Ohio

Tom DelamaterAnalyst IDecember 22, 2009

The Cleveland Cavaliers not only have The King, they are the kings when it comes to television ratings in Ohio.

The Akron Beacon Journal reported Tuesday that Fox Sports Ohio’s television ratings for Cavaliers games are up 27 percent overall from last year. Particularly encouraging are the numbers in the central and southern parts of the state.

Ratings are up 47 percent in Columbus. Apart from the NHL's Blue Jackets, fans there are frequently divided between Cleveland and Cincinnati when it comes to following pro sports—Browns vs. Bengals, Reds vs. Indians. But there’s no competition when it comes to the NBA. LeBron and the Cavaliers are the only game in town.

Now the Cavs' popularity is increasing in Cincinnati, too. Ratings there have jumped a whopping 93 percent this year, as the addition of Shaquille O’Neal has apparently improved the Cavaliers marquee value in the southernmost part of the state. That's no small feat, considering that Cincinnati is actually closer geographically to Indianapolis, home of the Indiana Pacers.

It's ironic because there was a time when Cincinnati was Ohio’s only pro basketball home, and the eyes of Cleveland turned there for a hoops fix. From 1957 to 1972, the Cincinnati Royals represented much of the Midwest as they matured along with the growing, but struggling, National Basketball Association.

The Royals arrived in Cincinnati after nine seasons in Rochester, N.Y., where they won an NBA championship and reached the playoffs seven times. They would make the playoffs on seven more occasions during their 14-year run on the shores of the Ohio River, and during that time feature a few of the game’s most legendary names on their roster.

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As a boy growing up in Northern Ohio, I was loyal to the Browns and Indians. But I quickly realized that, when it came to the NBA, the Royals were the team I would love. In the '60s they had the coolest uniforms, with the name “Royals” appearing vertically down the side of their jerseys. And they had one of the game’s greatest players, Oscar Robertson.

Robertson dominated the guard position from the time he arrived as a rookie out of the University of Cincinnati. The transition to the pro game was child’s play for the Big O, who averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists a game his first year.

The following season, 1961-62, he established a statistical standard that remains unmatched, averaging a triple-double by tallying 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 points a game. It was an astonishing feat, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s dizzying statistics during the same era.

Robertson would win an MVP award in 1964, after he was teamed with former Ohio State standout Jerry Lucas (both pictured above) to make the Royals a formidable championship contender. However, the franchise suffered from dubious ownership throughout their stay in Cincinnati, making it difficult for the team to fulfill its budding potential.

I was a tad young to appreciate the Royals’ earliest years in the city when stars such as Jack Twyman, Maurice Stokes, and Wayne Embry patrolled the hardwood. As my childhood interest peaked, my loyalties were with players such Tom Van Arsdale, Norm Van Lier, Johnny Green, and Connie Dierking.

By the late 1960s, the Royals played occasional "home" games in other Midwestern cities, including about 10 a year in Cleveland. This practice, intended to build a broader fan base, also drew attention to Cleveland as a desirable location for an NBA franchise.

The Cavaliers entered the league in 1970 and gradually won the hearts of fans in Northern Ohio. Despite the hiring of the legendary Bob Cousy as coach in 1969, the Royals could not maintain enough fan support over the next three seasons. They moved in 1972 and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.

The pro basketball landscape was changing. When the Royals first set up shop in Cincinnati, the NBA was an eight-team operation. Like other pro leagues at the time, it was based in the eastern United States. Minneapolis and St. Louis were the farthest points west.

It was a simpler time, before multimillion-dollar player contracts and mega-deals for television rights. There was no ESPN or TNT, and there were no regional cable networks beaming every game, home and away, into our living rooms as they do today.

One "game of the week" appeared on network television. (See vintage footage here and elsewhere on YouTube.) I would sit eagerly in front of our Zenith black-and-white set, watching Robertson, Russell, Chamberlain, West, and the other stars of that era as they literally built the foundation for the NBA we know today.

As a Royals fan in the '60s, I was lucky to catch a scratchy broadcast on the AM radio in our kitchen. Most often, I had to wait until I arrived home from school the next day to find the box score in the newspaper and learn whether the Royals had won or lost.

Game after game, Robertson's stat line would jump out at you, with 30, even 40 points to his credit. I could just imagine the Big O posting up smaller players, zipping pinpoint passes to open teammates, or launching his trademark one-handed shot to the basket.

Stars burned just as brightly in young boy's imaginations back then as they do now, on the big stage of nightly television broadcasts and multimillion-dollar commercials.

Things are drastically different today. Money, marketing, and marquee names drive the NBA. Perennial playoff teams like the Cavaliers are not only fixtures in their local market, they're frequently featured on national broadcasts, as well.

The addition of O'Neal to Cleveland's roster has caused even more Cavaliers merchandise to fly off the shelves. Home games routinely sell out at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Royals/Kings have long since moved to Sacramento, where they’ve toiled in an odd sort of West Coast obscurity for most of their 25 seasons, despite a run of eight straight playoff appearances and a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2002.

But there was a time when the kings of Ohio basketball operated out of the Queen City. The Royals of Cincinnati were my first NBA love, and still hold a special place in the hearts of die-hard hoops fans throughout the Midwest.

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