The loss of at least the first two weeks of the NBA's regular season due to labor strife will have not only ESPN and TNT scrambling but also dozens of local sports cable channels that count on pro basketball for a big chunk of their fall and winter programming.
On Monday, NBA Commissioner David Stern said there was "no chance" that the league would be able to carry out a full, 82-game regular-season schedule. Stern said the league and the players remained "very far apart on virtually all the issues" regarding a new labor deal. The season was due to start Nov. 1.
Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and ABC telecast the NBA's regular-season and postseason games, as does Time Warner's TNT. ESPN and ABC have a 90-game regular-season package, as well as postseason games including the NBA finals. TNT has 52 regular-season games and carries some playoff games.
"Like all NBA fans, we're disappointed the season will not start on time [and] we remain hopeful this will get resolved quickly," ESPN said in a statement. TNT said it was hoping for "an outcome that preserves as much of the 2011-12 season as possible."
ESPN and TNT are keeping mum on how they will specifically fill the void on their networks in the case of an extended work stoppage. TNT will lose six games with the first two weeks gone and has a large library of movies and reruns, as well as original programming, that it can use to plug holes.
Although much of the attention on the lockout's effect on the media has focused on ESPN and TNT, much harder hit will be local channels such as News Corp.'s Fox Sports West, which carries the Lakers. Fox Sports and cable giant Comcast Corp. are two of the biggest operators of so-called regional sports networks.
"There is probably a lot more at stake at the regional sports network level than the national level," said Chris Bevilacqua, who heads Bevilacqua Media, a sports and media consulting firm
Although the networks won't be on the hook for games lost to a work stoppage, their ratings and ad revenue could be adversely affected and there will be a scramble to find programming to fill the void left by the loss of the NBA.
"We will air a mix of college sports, hockey, original programming and selective classic NBA games in the meantime," said a spokesman for Comcast Corp., which has the local cable rights to seven NBA franchises, including the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Regional sports networks are often some of the most expensive channels for multichannel video programming distributors such as Time Warner Cable and DirecTV to carry. If enough games are lost, the distributors will probably seek some sort of discount on the fees they pay to those channels, Bevilacqua said.
But whether any reduction in fees will then be passed on to subscribers may be another story. Bevilacqua said it was likely that at least 50% of the NBA season would have to be canceled before distributors might think of reducing cable bills or offering a rebate to subscribers.