NBA dribbles toward dicey TV contracts

Jordan, race a factor as Peacock rethinks hoopsters pact

NEW YORK –The National Basketball Assn., fresh out of slam dunks, couldn’t have chosen a worse time to begin negotiations for a new long-term TV contract.

Madison Avenue has demanded huge discounts in 2001-02 for the spots it buys on broadcast and cable networks. A bad U.S. economy has spurred the fire sale on ad rates, which has affected sports just as much as entertainment, reality and news.

The dismal economy is only one of the NBA’s obstacles.

The league’s ratings have fallen off steeply since 1998, the year Michael Jordan retired, on both NBC, the exclusive broadcast rights’ holder since 1990, and Turner’s TNT/TBS, which has had the national cable rights for the last 17 years.

The fairly strong prospect of Jordan’s return for the 2001-02 season has put a smile on the lips of David Stern, the NBA commissioner, but the new contract begins with the 2002-03 season.

If Jordan plays this season and wants to do it again in 2002-03, he’ll be 39, an age that would probably limit him to part-time duty. (NBC and Turner have until Oct. 15 to engineer a renewal of their contracts, after which the NBA will seek bids from other networks.)

The overall ratings decline of the NBA is bad enough, but NBC is particularly concerned about the way the demographic has skewed over the past few years toward blacks.

The Peacock, for example, averaged a 2.9 rating for its regular-season games in 2000-01, but within that total, the black average was a 9.2 rating, a staggering 317% above the statistical norm. By contrast, the black audience for CBS’ Sunday-afternoon regular-season pro-football games last season was a 10.0 which, at 125%, is higher — but not eye-poppingly higher — than the overall average rating of 9.5.

The bottom-line problem with this disproportionate percentage of blacks is that most advertisers won’t pay a premium for them, even when they cluster in the hard-to-reach 18-to-34 category.

These numbers could give ESPN pause as it prepares to do battle with TNT/TBS for the cable portion of the NBA rights.

One of ESPN’s scenarios is to propose a primetime game of the week on ABC Family, its new sister network, which will need high-visibility programming as it seeks to induce cable operators to pay stiffer monthly license fees for the service.

But Jerry Solomon, a TV sports consultant and former president of SFM Media, says, “White people are increasingly turned off” by players with gangsta-rap images like Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers, who sports more tattoos than Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man” and had to be admonished by Stern last season for recording an album filled with profane, derogatory lyrics.

Another ESPN contractual bauble that could help it wrest the NBA away from Turner is the creation of a 24-hour all-basketball cable network. This channel wouldn’t run any live NBA games but would constitute a year-round promotional vehicle, chockful of programming tied to the NBA, its new development league and the Women’s NBA.

ABC, another ESPN sibling, is angling to displace NBC as the exclusive broadcast network of the NBA.

“ABC’s argument is that it could cross-promote and cross-pollinate the NBA with ESPN,” something that would be harder to pull off if unattached entities like NBC and ESPN were to share the rights, says David Carter, a principal in the Sports Business Group.

The overriding issue is, of course, money.

In the last contract negotiation held in 1997, NBC paid $1.75 billion and Turner $890 million, each for four years. That combined dollar figure represented a whopping 140% more than the previous four-year deal.

Stern knows the NBA won’t get anywhere near those percentage increases in the current round of bargaining, but he still wants a lot more money than he got four years ago.

One way NBC could justify shelling out bigger bucks, says Solomon, is to get the NBA to agree to add a weekly primetime game in November and December on the Pax TV broadcast network. NBC, which owns about 32% of Pax TV, shares lots of programming with it, both TV series and sports events.

There’s no doubt that the wheeling and dealing will be ferocious over the next month or two, Carter says.

“These negotiations,” he concludes, “could be the most dynamic bargaining marathons the NBA has ever seen,” delivering dollar increases that would mock the down economy and the disappearing TV audience.

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