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Do Not Adjust Your Television Sets

NBA undergoes radical change by becoming first major pro league to show its games predominantly on cable TV.

October 29, 2002|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The NBA is continuing its "Love It Live" campaign, which began last season. Only this season, it could more accurately be expanded to: "Love It Live, Because You Won't See Many Games if You Don't Have Cable or Satellite TV."

As a new season dawns, so does a new television era for the NBA. Maybe they should call it the CNBA--the Cable National Basketball Assn.--as the league becomes the first in major professional sports to show its games predominantly on cable TV.

Under a six-year, $4.2-billion contract completed in January -- it has been called the most complex sports television contract in history -- not only did ABC replace NBC as the network carrier, the number of regular-season network games was cut from 34 to 14.

Meanwhile, ESPN and ESPN2, involved in NBA coverage for the first time since the 1983-84 season, will televise 76 games and incumbent TNT will offer 52.

"Think of it this way," said Greg Hughes, TNT senior vice president. "The NBC weekend package has moved to Thursday nights on TNT, and the former TNT package is now on ESPN."

A key aspect of the new deal is that most of the games on TNT are exclusive, meaning they can't be carried by local outlets such as Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net. In fact, TNT has a "Tickets or TNT" campaign going, explaining that the games on its schedule can only be seen by those with game tickets or TNT.

TNT's exclusivity doesn't mean that Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net will be deprived of more Laker telecasts than in the past. TNT can show the Lakers nine times, with six telecasts being exclusive, and ABC has four Laker games exclusively. That's a total of 10 Laker telecasts exclusive to national TV. Last season, NBC had 11.

What will hurt Laker carriers Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net is that now games on ESPN and ESPN2 don't have to be blacked out in the markets of the participating teams.

ESPN, with a big production budget and such new technological gimmicks as a "free flight" camera suspended on cables and "floor cameras" placed on the court under glass, figures to steal at least some viewers from Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net.

Channel 9 and Fox Sports Net will get hurt even more in the playoffs. Only the opening game of the first round of the playoffs can be televised locally.

The loss to the Lakers in local television rights money during the playoffs could be $2 million or more.

Most playoff games will be televised by ESPN or TNT. Only the NBA Finals and a few selected early-round games will be on ABC. The conference finals will be exclusively on cable, the West on TNT, the East on ESPN.

If this deal had been in effect last season, none of the seven games of the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings would have been available in non-cable households.

In Los Angeles, that is 37% of the market. In the inner-city, the percentage of non-cable households is even higher. If baseball had a television contract similar to the NBA's, 37% of Los Angeles would have been deprived of the Angels' run to the World Series.

So why did the NBA make a deal that will deprive so many people of games? Doesn't the league want its games to reach as many viewers as possible?

Yes, but ...

Cable can pay more. Cable has two revenue streams -- money generated by advertising, plus money generated by subscriber fees. That's why ESPN pays at least $50 million more a year for NFL rights than ABC, CBS or Fox.

And now TNT is seeking a 10% increase in its monthly subscriber fee, from 72 cents a subscriber to 79 cents. That doesn't sound like much until you consider that TNT reaches 87 million homes.

Cable operators have already voiced resistance to this increase, and it's an issue that could become heated after Jan. 1.

But, for now, TNT executives are licking their chops, excited about their new exclusivity. And why shouldn't they be?

"This deal is not only a value to us," said TNT's Hughes, "it is also a value to all of cable television. It will bring more viewers and more subscribers to cable television."

TNT opens with a doubleheader tonight that features the Lakers playing San Antonio at Staples Center in the nightcap. The game will be a TNT exclusive, meaning the pregame ceremony featuring the raising of the championship banner and the presentation of the championship rings will also be on TNT only.

Just how much time TNT will be able to devote to the ceremony isn't known. It could get short shrift if the first game, Philadelphia at Orlando, runs long.

"It's a joke," said Paul Sunderland, the Lakers' new play-by-play announcer. "The ring presentation should be on local television and shown in its entirety. There's no way TNT is going to devote much time to it, particularly if the first game runs long.

"I'm not blaming TNT. I think the league needed to step up and make an exception in this case and let Fox Sports Net also televise the game."

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