TV seeks Jordan heir

With Bulls star gone, ratings may get bearish

NEW YORK — NBC and Turner Broadcasting’s TNT and TBS could suffer dramatic erosion in viewership of their coverage of pro basketball following Michael Jordan’s expected announcement today that he’s officially hanging up his Chicago Bulls’ uniform.

Just a week ago, Ted Turner and NBC’s chairman Bob Wright were popping champagne corks over the news that the lockout of National Basketball Assn. players by the owners had ended, and the NBA season will resume Feb. 5.

But when Turner and Wright look at the ratings of NBA games that do not include the Chicago Bulls as one of the contending teams, their unbridled celebration has to quickly shift to deep concern.

For example, counting regular-season games during the 1997-98 season, NBC averaged a gaudy 6.5 Nielsen rating every time it featured Jordan and the Bulls. But that average plunged by 71% to an anemic 3.8 rating when the games on NBC didn’t include the Bulls.

Similarly, during the regular 1997-98 season, TNT (on Tuesday and Friday in primetime) and TBS (primetime on Wednesday) together averaged a solid 2.8 rating in cable homes when the Bulls suited up for the cameras, and a less-than-stellar 1.7 rating in cable homes for games without the Bulls — a 65% falloff.

The agony of not having Jordan in uniform for 1999 is heightened by the more than doubling of license fees pro basketball is extracting from NBC and Turner in the new four-year contract, which kicks off with this season.

NBC’s license fee soars from $750 million for the four seasons between 1994-95 and 1997-98 to $1.75 billion for the four years through the 2002-03 season.

The TNT-TBS outlay shoots up from $350 million for the previous four seasons to $890 million for the four years beginning this February.

But Turner executives say it’s not a foregone conclusion that the ratings for 1999 and the next three years will end in disaster. A Turner spokesman cites what happened after the 1992-93 season, when Jordan resigned from the Bulls to become a baseball player in the Chicago White Sox farm system.

The overall rating for regular-season games on TNT and TBS during the 1992-93 season ended up at a 1.7 in cable homes. A year later, the two networks wound up with the same 1.7 average Nielsen rating during the regular 1993-94 season, even though Jordan, as a baseball outfielder, was struggling to hit curve balls in the minor leagues.

One source says the only way NBC and Turner could approximate last year’s ratings now that Jordan has departed is if Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, the Bulls stars who are now free agents, agree to sign new contracts with the Bulls and help the team try to defend its world championship.

Meanwhile, Nike stock slipped more than 4% Tuesday, to 42-5/16, as investors worried sales of the company’s athletic shoes and apparel will take a bad bounce without its top endorser in uniform.

Nike’s sales, already battered by Asia’s economic slump and shifting fashions, are likely to suffer over the next year or two as Jordan’s retirement — and the recently ended lengthy NBA players lockout — drive fans away from the game, analysts said.

Reuters contributed to this story

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