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Lakers golden as money draw

Times Staff Writer

It will probably become someone’s memorable Father’s Day gift: a seat right behind the visitors’ bench at Staples Center to watch the Lakers and Boston Celtics that day in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Should the best-of-seven series, which begins tonight in Boston, go to a fifth game, that seat is available for $27,028.

The nation may be struggling with soaring fuel prices, high food bills and rising home foreclosures, but when it comes to the revival of the celebrated Lakers-Celtics matchup in the NBA championship series after 21 years, all economic indicators are up. Ticket prices and merchandise revenue have risen steadily through this postseason, as have television ratings and online hits, with an even bigger jump anticipated for the Finals.

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StubHub, an online ticket service, is offering the Father’s Day special with up to eight individual seats available at the $27,028 price. For a group, a 44-person suite is being offered for $51,431.

“This is the biggest thing I’ve experienced at Staples Center since it opened,” said Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, owner and operator of the arena. “We’ve had the Grammys, concerts, championship fights, figure skating and the Pac 10 tournament along with the five teams that play here, but I’ve never seen anything like this. . . . People are buying premier seats [starting at $15,000 each] for next season to get the right to buy tickets for this series. Just during lunch today, Tim Harris [who handles seats for celebrities] had 10 calls. Everybody who is anybody wants in.”

In Boston, enthusiasm is also high, although tickets are not quite as expensive. The chants of “Beat L.A.,” a mantra from the ‘80s, began in the Boston locker room after the Celtics beat the Detroit Pistons on Friday night to qualify for the Finals, and have echoed from Faneuil Hall to Harvard Square.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said Chris Villani, a Boston sports radio host. “There’s been a mixture of relief and euphoria.”

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Reviving a rivalry

It was a ritual of spring for Kobe Bryant, starting at age 6. Living in Europe where his father was playing professional basketball, Bryant would eagerly await the precious package from his grandfather in the United States, a package containing tapes of the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA Finals. Bryant would watch those tapes over and over, imitating Magic Johnson’s celebrated hook shot in the 1987 Finals or seething at Kevin McHale’s brutal foul of Kurt Rambis in 1984.

Bryant was hardly alone. A generation was becoming transfixed by a rivalry for all ages.

In 1959 and through much of the ‘60s, the Lakers and the Celtics caught the attention of the nation’s sports fans, meeting seven times in the championship finals. Twenty years later, the two teams, personified by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, met three more times, spearheading the NBA’s huge leap in popularity, from late-night tape-delayed broadcasts to prime time.

Now with the Lakers and Celtics again poised to face each other, it appears the ensuing years -- the Michael Jordan years, the Shaquille O’Neal years -- have done nothing to abate the hunger for another rematch between East and West, purple and gold against Celtic green.

The reasons are obvious. These are the two most successful franchises in league history. Boston has won a record 16 championships, the Lakers 14.

The Celtics were the best team in the Eastern Conference in the regular season with a 66-16 record. The Lakers were the best in the Western Conference at 57-25.

And both teams have star power: The Lakers’ big three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom going against Boston’s high-profile trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

“It’s not about what we built,” Johnson said. “It’s about now. These teams will create their own rivalry.”

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Prices, ratings are up

Numbers across the board document the appeal:

* Tickets: According to StubHub, the average resale price for the Finals is $772 in Los Angeles and $547 in Boston. In last year’s championship series, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs, the average was $366 in Cleveland, $311 in San Antonio. (Face value for the most expensive seat at Staples Center for the Boston series is just under $4,000.)

* Television: ESPN had a 3.3 rating for the postseason, a 38% increase over last year’s 2.4. ABC, which will telecast the Finals, has had a 3.7 rating, up 28% over last year.

Though television executives won’t predict blockbuster ratings for the Finals, a historic perspective certainly gives them hope. The rating for last year’s Finals between the Spurs and the Cavaliers was a record-low 6.2, according to the NBA. It has been four years since the rating was in double figures. That was in 2004, the last time the Lakers reached the Finals. Their series against the Pistons got an 11.5 rating. In each of the three championship seasons by the Lakers at the start of this decade, the ratings reached double figures.

* Merchandise: Since the start of the playoffs, business is up 80% for the league’s online outlet and 15% at the NBA’s merchandise store in Manhattan.

Locally at the Team L.A. merchandise shops, foot traffic at the Universal CityWalk outlet is up 400% to 500% this month with 1,200 to 1,400 customers a day, according to Sean Ryan, merchandising vice president for AEG. At the Staples Center store, it’s up 300%, drawing an average of 800 to 1,000 visitors. Last Saturday at Staples Center, a non-game day but the day after the Celtics qualified to join the Lakers in the Finals, roughly 2,000 people went through the store.

“Our total in May equals the total for the last four months,” Ryan said.

Among the items being offered for the Finals is a leather jacket featuring both the Lakers and Celtics that sells for $1,500. Ryan said he has ordered several dozen.

* Online: The NBA’s official website has attracted 1.2 billion visits this season, up 60% from a year ago.

“The Finals are the icing on the cake,” said Steve Grimes, who heads the league’s online operation. “In the past, the traffic would go down as the playoffs proceed and teams are eliminated, but we haven’t seen that this year.”

Yes, it’s big, but, at least in Boston, people shouldn’t get carried away, said longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. It’s not as if it’s baseball’s Red Sox or football’s Patriots, neither of whom had won championships during the previous seasons of this rivalry.

“The Red Sox are No. 1 in this town and the Patriots are 1A,” Ryan said.

“This Celtic team has at least put itself in the discussion, earned itself a seat at the table, but it is clearly No. 3. It’s not the same as it was in the ‘80s. It doesn’t have quite the same sizzle. Thank goodness it’s the Lakers they are playing. If not, you would have to cut back everything that’s going on by 20%.”

In other words, don’t look for anyone in Boston to pay $27,000 for a seat.

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steve.springer@latimes.com


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