NBA, Nets hooping it up

ESPN, ABC pay $2.4 bil for 6 year deal

NEW YORK — Roughly 20% fewer people are watching the NBA playoffs this season, but neither the league nor the networks are kicking up a fuss.

In fact, as the National Basketball Assn. settles into its first postseason with new television outlets ABC and ESPN, the deal is shaping up to be a slam-dunk for both sides: The league is raking in the dough, and the networks could see a ratings bonanza as the defending champ Los Angeles Lakers get a serious test for their fourth straight championship.

On the face of it, the numbers are stark: The 19 games covered during the first three weeks of 2002 averaged a 3.7 rating. For the same period this year, encompassing 18 games, the rating fell to a 2.2, a decline of 41%.

But a closer look reveals that last year’s lineup for the three weeks included 16 games broadcast by NBC, which reaches 100% of the U.S., compared to cable and satellite TV’s combined 80%.

NBC didn’t renew its NBA contract, losing out to ESPN and its sister network ABC. As a result, ESPN was cablecasting 11 contests and ESPN2 an additional two games, while only three games ended up on the ABC broadcast network.

The NBA might have liked it if more people tuned in to the games, but it will pocket more money this year from the networks than ever before, no matter how many viewers watch. ESPN and ABC together pony up $2.4 billion ($400 million a year for six years) and TNT lays out $2.2 billion ($366.5 million per).

Alphabet wins, too

And ABC loudly boasts that its three games averaged 6.5 million total viewers, a 241% increase from the less-than-compelling programs ABC broadcast in the same Sunday-afternoon time periods a year ago. The hoops matchups also give struggling ABC a chance to promote its primetime lineup to male auds.

But measured against the comparable three games on NBC last year, the ABC numbers were flat, despite the fact that ABC had two games featuring the world champion Lakers and one Game Seven between Portland and Dallas.

For the cable networks overall, NBA Playoffs viewership was actually up by 6% so far this season. A total of 19 games spread over TNT, ESPN, TBS and ESPN2 averaged a 1.9 rating, through May 4. A year ago, 22 games cablecast exclusively by TNT and TBS averaged a 1.8 rating.

So cable is happy, particularly TNT, which amassed 4.85 million households for Monday’s game between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. That’s more homes watching a basketball game on cable TV than at any other time since May 19, 1998, when 5.08 million tuned in to view a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls.

But basketball had to take a back seat to auto racing last week. FX’s primetime coverage of the Winston Cup Race on Saturday wound up as the highest-rated individual cable program for the week with 5.3 million total viewers, beating even President Bush’s aircraft-carrier speech on Fox News (4.862 million).

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