- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

The NBA yesterday signed a long-anticipated, six-year TV pact with the Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner for $4.6 billion, ending a 12-year relationship with NBC that helped catapult the league into global prominence.
The deal gives the league a 25 percent increase in annual rights fees from its previous pact, a surprising feat given the marked weakness of the U.S. economy. But to do that, more than twice as many regular season games will be aired in this new deal and almost all games will air on cable.
Starting with the 2002-03 season, ESPN and ESPN2 will show 75 regular-season games per year on Wednesdays and Fridays, up to 22 early-round playoff contests and all holiday games. ABC, owned by Disney along with the ESPN networks, will air 15 regular season and select playoff games on Sundays and the NBA Finals. AOL Time Warner-owned TNT will air 52 regular season games on Thursdays, some playoffs including a conference final series and the All-Star Game. And a new, as-yet-unnamed sports network to be co-owned by AOL Time Warner and the NBA will air 96 regular season games each year and up to two playoff games.
The accord also provides provisions for Internet and radio rights, wireless services, the development of video games and home video, and a host of other related ventures.
The telecast lineup is a marked change from the current accord split between NBC, TNT and TBS, in which NBC is the dominant partner, airing Sunday tripleheaders for much of every season. ABC's total NBA exposure will be less than half what NBC aired per year.
Since initial reports of the deal leaked out last month, some industry critics viewed the NBA as waving the white flag. By shifting much of its exposure away from broadcast TV to cable, fully one-third of American households that do not receive cable TV will be shut out from most NBA telecasts.
NBA commissioner David Stern, predictably, disagreed with that view.
"We're quite frankly following the development in the industry," Stern told The Washington Times yesterday. "We're following the development of more viewers watching sports on cable. We're following a trend toward the creation of new networks. We're following a shift toward the distribution of content in new forms and developing technology. This is all a fundamental shift that's occurred in our industry. We're now positioned to take full advantage, and we're pretty excited about it."
NBA.com TV, the satellite and digital cable channel which had represented the league's last salvo into new technology, will remain in place as a sort of headline news for basketball, Stern said, but it will be soon renamed NBA TV.
For nearly a decade, the NBA-NBC relationship was among the closest and best-operating partnerships in TV sports. The league seamlessly showcased an array of stars ranging from Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan, the game production was among the best of any sports telecasts, the promotion was relentless, and viewers snapped it up in droves. But in recent years, two Jordan retirements, a worsening quality of play and an owners' lockout in 1998-99 repelled millions of viewers.
By last year, ratings on NBC were off by 35 percent from 1997-98, Jordan's last year before his second retirement. And NBC was losing about $150 million a year on the NBA in an ever-weakening ad market.
"For the first time a major sports property has largely migrated from network to cable, where the dual revenue streams of subscriber fees and advertising can support the escalating costs of broadcast sports rights," said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. "In the future it will become almost impossible for broadcast television sports to match the power of those [subscriber] fees, which are unique to the cable world."
ESPN, for its part, extends its position of dominance within the sports industry. It now holds at once contracts to air live games for the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, a first by any network. Because of that full plate, a difficult juggling act awaits for network schedulers.
"Having all four leagues with some overlapping seasons is going to create some scheduling challenges, as well as opportunities for cross promotion," said ESPN president George Bodenheimer. "But it is our intention to minimize any disruption."

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