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Nets wait for NBA’s aud bounce

TNT, ESPN both down in total viewers for first three weeks

Pro basketball is coming off a solid year: Ratings were up during 2005-06 for its national distributors — TNT, ESPN and ABC — and attendance at the arenas set a record for the fourth year in a row.

David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Assn., reflected the buoyant mood when he said in a conference call right before the season opener: “Life is good, and shows every indication of being even better.”

The word “better,” however, is premature when applied to TNT and ESPN, which are down in total viewers for the first three weeks of the new season.

TNT can attribute some of the blame for the 11% dropoff in viewers for the first eight NBA games of 2006-07 to tougher competition: namely, Big East college football, which has proven to be an unexpected Nielsen bonanza for ESPN on Thursday nights, when TNT schedules its exclusive NBA doubleheaders.

But regular-season college football wraps up in two weeks, giving TNT’s execs confidence that its NBA numbers will bounce back, and maybe even eclipse last year’s.

ESPN is off by 2% in total viewers for the first 12 games spread across the network’s primetime schedules on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

“I’m optimistic that, as we progress during the season, the numbers will move in the right direction,” says Doug White, director of programming for ESPN.

White calls the NBA “a healthy league, which has taken the initiative in putting out a product that appeals to our viewers.”

Stern had television very much in mind, White says, when he pushed for passage of the clause that stops players from hand-checking one another.

“Stern adapted the rulebook to speed up the flow of the game and give more advantage to the offense,” says David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “It’s scoring that drives Nielsen ratings and ticket sales, not grind-it-out defense.”

ESPN and TNT have two years left to go on their combined $4.6 billion/six-year contract to share in nationally distributed coverage of the NBA, a humongous license fee, but they’re not complaining. The numbers may be down a bit in the early going, but TNT and ESPN are each averaging more than 1.5 million total viewers so far this season. (ABC starts carrying regular Sunday afternoon games in January.)

An advertiser will pay a premium to buy these games because they pull in disproportionate numbers of young men, and, as live events, they’re almost TiVo-proof: People aren’t stacking them up in their hard drives in order to zap the commercials during later viewing.

Sports-media consultant Mike Trager says another reason that advertisers are gung-ho about buying time in NBA games is that Stern has burnished the league’s image by successfully imposing a strict dress code on the players and cracking down on the verbal trashing of referees.

More young men are seeking out NBA games on TV, says Kevin O’Malley, a Tampa, Fla.-based media/sports consultant, because “a fresh group of youthful stars are rejuvenating interest in the game.”

O’Malley cites such players as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

The league earns higher TV ratings when its big-market teams do well; most analysts are predicting certain playoff berths for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls, and a likely postseason appearance by the L.A. Lakers.

But as for a playoff slot for the perennially dysfunctional Knicks, sports mavens employ a favorite New York colloquialism: “Fuggedaboutit.”

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