NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - What if they held an NBA finals and none of the stars came?
That's the problem facing the National Basketball Association, which is looking at one of its most star-free championship series in recent memory. That's not good news for a league that was already seeing a sharp drop in merchandise sales and television viewership.
The San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons have a number of very talented players. But when the Pistons beat the Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the league's last chance of having some star power for its championship also ended.
The initial ratings for Game 1 of the finals showed just less than 9 percent of the homes in the nation's largest television markets watching the game. That's down by almost 25 percent from last year's L.A. Lakers-Pistons final.
ABC tried to portray this as a gain from the last time a Game 1 didn't feature the Lakers. But that's not the point. The absences of popular, large-market teams like the Lakers and New York Knicks from the playoffs this year, as well as the league's most popular players like Cleveland's LeBron James, is hurting the game's popularity.
Of course, weak television ratings are more of an immediate problem for the broadcasters, not the league, which has its rights deals locked in for three more seasons. The more immediate problem is merchandise sales, which are down 42 percent for the year to date.
"They're missing their chance to highlight their most popular players," said Neil Schwartz of SportsScanInfo, which tracks sales of sporting goods at 13,000 stores nationwide.
That compares to a hot 2003-2004 season, when James and Denver rookie Carmelo Anthony burst onto the scene and shot to the top of the charts in merchandise sales.
"I'm not sure if Denver played Cleveland in the finals, it would be the same phenomena as when they both came into the league," said Schwartz.
But part of the problem is that NBA fans have not warmed to the league's current crop of foreign-born stars the way baseball fans have. Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki has the best-selling jersey of any foreign born star, but he's No. 24 in the rankings by SportsScan.
Houston center Yao Ming might be a huge star in China, but here there are 40 jerseys more popular than Yao's.
And both Nowitzki and Yao outsell any jersey worn by a Spur or Piston.
Spurs star Manu Ginobili, who was good enough to lead Argentina past the United States for the Olympic Gold Medal in 2004, isn't even on the radar on year-to-date sales.
"Pete Maravich sells more uniforms today than Ginobili," said Schwartz.
It doesn't help that retailers are starting to cut back on their inventory of NBA merchandise due to the threat of a possible strike or lockout.
The comments from management and the union on problems in labor negotiations seem like more sabre-rattling than a true threat to the start of the 2005-06 NBA season. But the din has been loud enough to catch the attention of retailers.
Commissioner David Stern said in April that the league had been notified that at least one major seller of its goods was cutting off all orders because of the labor uncertainty.
Its blue-collar finals notwithstanding, some things are going right for the NBA.
The league has done a good job promoting the game in overseas markets. It also just set attendance records this season, with the league-wide average showing 90 percent of seats being sold.
By comparison, the Major League Baseball team with the best attendance last year, the New York Yankees, sold only 80 percent of its available seats.
Ratings are down, but that is as much about the shift of more of its inventory of games from broadcast networks to cable than anything else.
But the difficulties are another sign that the game is in too vulnerable a position to engage in any kind of work stoppage. Once the finals are over, the league and the union have to stop playing games as well and reach an agreement relatively quickly.