NBA rights pay off big time

The NBA is back.

The money committed for national-cable coverage of pro basketball four years ago was staggering — $2.4 billion by ESPN/ABC and $2.2 billion by TNT — but the Nielsen ratings of the 2006 NBA postseason so far are making the investment look like a bargain.

TNT shot up 23% in households for the second round of the NBA Playoffs compared with the same period in 2005.

Average viewership is 3.3 million homes, which helped the cabler finish a dominant first among all cable networks for the week ended May 21.

And the household ratings of ESPN’s second-round coverage were equally robust, climbing by 30% across six cablecasts. Overall, counting 15 cablecasts in the first and second rounds, ESPN was up by 19% from the same number of games in 2005.

“We think these playoffs mark a watershed for the NBA,” said David Levy, president of Turner Sports.

Levy added that sports mavens are going to have to stop crying the blues about how the game fell apart when Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird retired. “There is a new group of stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitski and Dwayne Wade that are pulling in the fans,” he said.

TNT’s gains flowed across all the key young demographics, led by a 20% jump among the Madison Ave.-friendly demo of men 18 to 34.

ESPN’s ABC sibling grew by 15% in households for its coverage of five second-round games, and by 16% for the nine broadcasts during the first and second rounds.

It’s the new stars, plus the tightness of many of the playoff games — nine have spilled into overtime and most have remained in doubt until the final minutes — that have “brought the excitement back to pro basketball big time,” said Levy.

Levy also gives kudos to NBA commissioner David Stern for negotiating a solid collective-bargaining agreement with the players, which helped to stabilize the league’s financial operations, and for cracking down on violations by players of rules against such things as fighting and drug use.

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