Sports labor strife clouds fall sked

There’s a cloud hanging over this year’s upfront presentations, only unlike “Lost’s” smoke monster, this one assumes two distinct shapes: a football and a basketball.

The broadcast networks, ESPN and Turner will host presentations to advertisers this week, touting their new fall lineups and seeking billions in advance (hence “upfront”) commitments. What remains unknown, given the labor standoff between National Football League players and owners, is whether TV’s most formidable attraction will be around not just to attract eyeballs, but to assist in promoting and launching new series.

The National Basketball Assn. faces its own potential work stoppage following this year’s playoffs, with the league seeking rollbacks in player compensation citing a gush of red ink. Both situations carry the threat of lost games and disrupted schedules.

All the networks will thus toe a rather delicate line, with ESPN, CBS, NBC and Fox all allied with the NFL, and ESPN, TNT and ABC having a sizable interest in the NBA.

So far, the networks and NFL are seeking to reassure buyers like a cop at a crime scene — “Hey, nothing to see here, all is well, just keep moving along” — even announcing their football schedules with nary an asterisk in sight.

Yet having additional hours to fill, especially for struggling NBC if “Sunday Night Football” is delayed, is an unappetizing prospect. In addition, the next hearing in the legal battle over the NFL lockout isn’t scheduled until June 3, and traditionally upfront sales action has begun in earnest by then.

What’s a network executive to do? Try to ignore the elephant in the room, most likely. But listen carefully, and these apprehensions will doubtless manifest themselves, if only in the sports metaphors that so readily spill from their mouths during the classic upfront sales spiels.

Like any team, each network has its own playbook, but parts of the upfront speeches could sound something like this:

CBS

“In such a competitive landscape, there’s value in being a bit conservative in our game plan. As the No. 1 network, we intend to take our shots down field, but we’ll leave the Hail Mary passes to the other guys.

“In fact, while everyone else is shuffling their rosters, we’re proud to bring back a stable lineup of proven winners. And last year, instead of shying away from the competition’s strongest players, we tackled them head on.”

ABC

“We recognize that we need to build on our strength, and intend to work overtime to get the job done. Admittedly, there are no easy lay-ups or clear slam-dunks anymore, but with our lineup of established veterans and promising rookies, we have put all of our key players in positions where they have the best chance to score.”

NBC

“Look, we’ve had a tough couple of seasons, and we’ve been thrown for some losses. But with new leadership, we absolutely believe we’re poised for a comeback. We have a solid strategy, the personnel to execute it and a strong commitment to winning.

“We recognize the need to be aggressive, while utilizing a diversified, balanced approach. And we’ll support our shows with one of the biggest promotional blitzes in our history.”

CW

“Our goal is to build on the solid gains we’ve already made. And while we’re going through a transition, we remain young, hungry, and have no intention of taking our eye off the ball.”

Fox

“We’re not satisfied trying to get by with just singles and doubles, though we’ll certainly take those where we can. But because of the heavy hitters anchoring our lineup, we’re going to double down on our success and take a few big swings for the fences.”

OK, so that’s mixing metaphors, but what do you expect? After all, ABC broadcasts the NBA, and as the home of Major League Baseball, Fox is the only network heading into the fall certain at least one of its major sports will suit up next season.

About the only sports term you won’t hear overtly is the tactic executives often employ when too many shows begin failing or they want to transfer blame to a predecessor.

When your back is pressed against the goal line, punt.

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