NBA fast-breaks to strong ratings

Doubleheader coverage on TNT, ESPN sets record

NEW YORK — The forthcoming rape trial of Kobe Bryant has flashed an unwelcome nationwide spotlight on the new NBA season. But if the slam-dunk opening-night ratings of doubleheader games on TNT (Tuesday) and ESPN (Wednesday) are an indicator, the Bryant affair could drive masses of new viewers to tune into games.

TNT’s exclusive coverage on Tuesday easily beat last season’s opening doubleheader by 50% or more in total viewers and in all of the key adult demos. The doubleheader set a record in household delivery for season openers on TNT, going back to 1984.

Game 2 of the doubleheader, between Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks, chalked up the best rating for a regular-season game on TNT since a Washington Wizards (with Michael Jordan) vs. New York Knicks game Oct. 30, 2001.

Viewers were not even put off by the fact that Bryant couldn’t play because of an injury. Further fueling interest may have been a high-profile flareup in the ongoing feud between Bryant and fellow Laker Shaquille O’Neal.

ESPN didn’t air a Laker game on Wednesday, but the second game of the doubleheader featured the NBA debut of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, the most highly publicized rookie to enter the league in a decade.

NBA fans took notice, driving the rating to a 2.8 in cable homes, 65% higher than last year’s equivalent season opener (Lakers at Portland).

The number translated into more viewers than all but one of ESPN’s regular-season games last year. That one was the Jan. 17 Lakers vs. Houston game, the first meeting between O’Neal and the then-rookie Rockets center Yao Ming.

While the off-court travails of Bryant could prove to be the biggest story of the NBA season, sports analysts say there are so many other basketball stories and subplots surrounding the players, coaches and teams that fans will be riveted to the sports pages between now and the Championship Finals in mid-June.

TNT and ESPN are salivating over the potential for a spike in their ratings this season because analysts say both networks overpaid to get the NBA contracts.

ESPN and its sister network ABC ponied up $2.4 billion for the six-year deal, which began with the 2002-03 season, and TNT forked over $2.2 billion, also for six years, starting in’02-03.

Higher ratings would not only shove the two networks closer to break-even on their contracts but serve as promotional vehicles for other programming on their schedules.

The most noteworthy free-agent signings over the summer were Karl Malone and Gary Payton, shoo-in Hall of Famers, by the Lakers.

Both stars took humongous pay cuts to increase their chances of winning a championship. But that was before Bryant was arrested for allegedly raping a young woman while he was staying at a Colorado hotel. (Bryant says the sex was consensual.)

With Bryant’s availability subject to the schedule of a Denver trial judge, the Lakers no longer can claim a lock on the championship.

That opens up the Western Conference to what could be a donnybrook among the San Antonio Spurs (who won last season), the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves, all of which improved themselves through trades and free-agent signings over the past few months.

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