- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

NBA commissioner David Stern is feeling pretty good these days.

Stern's optimism may seem a bit odd considering that TV ratings for last season's NBA Finals were easily the worst in history and a 1 percent increase in overall attendance would have turned into a second consecutive loss without the return of Michael Jordan. And league bad-boy Latrell Sprewell is again at war, this time with the New York Knicks and New York Post over a broken finger.

But Stern's bullishness stems from number of factors, including the much-heralded entry of Chinese star Yao Ming in Houston, a growing international proliferation of the NBA brand, and another year with Jordan and his powerful economic effect on the entire league.

More drastically, though, the NBA will begin its season next week under a new six-year, $4.6billion TV deal with TNT, ESPN and ABC. TNT was an NBA incumbent, but ESPN and ABC will televise NBA games for the first time in more than 15 years, and the new deal shifts most of the NBA's television presence from broadcast to cable.

That move has drawn puzzlement and criticism since the deal was struck nine months ago. Stern, however, predicts increased TV ratings and a boost in aggregate interest in the league.

"We have comfortably moved to where our fans are," said Stern, remarking on the new deal's preponderance of prime-time broadcasts. "We think we're going to do fine. And we think that our fans are going to get to see a lot more basketball."

ESPN, for its part, becomes the first network to hold broadcast rights for the four major sports leagues simultaneously. Several innovations are planned for the coverage, including robotic cameras installed below and directly above the courts. The above-court cameras, called the Free Flight system, are not unlike the Sky Cams seen in football, but the basketball cameras move on a grid, and as a result, provide a much steadier picture.

"This is not just a TV deal for us," said George Bodenheimer, ESPN president. "This is a deal that supports and enhances all our other ventures. Radio. ESPN.com. High-definition TV. The list goes on. This [deal] is really a bellwether for us."

Stern was not quite as confident about game attendance this season. Last year's total of 20.2million owed greatly to Jordan's presence; the Washington Wizards sold out every home game and all but three road games. Stern hopes to draw about the same overall number this season.

"There is an enormous amount of pressure based on economic factors and layoffs on all sports tickets," Stern said.

Major league baseball finished the 2002 regular season down 6 percent at the gate, and most major sports leagues are increasing ticket prices at the smallest rates since the early 1990s or actually decreasing them.

In other NBA issues:

•Both NBA and ESPN executives are counting on a much stronger Wizards team. Bill Walton, ESPN's lead analyst, went so far as to call Washington the second best team in the Eastern Conference behind New Jersey.

"We think the reason people are going to see the Wizards more is a little bit because of Michael Jordan, but particularly because they have a much better team a very exciting team," Stern said.

•Predictably, Stern expressed great approval with the ongoing operation of the collective bargaining agreement. The 2002-03 salary cap figure for each team is $40.3million, down from $42.5million last year, and no owner paid payroll tax for the 2001-02 season. Despite the lower cap figure, average player salary for the season is projected to increase from last year's $4million due to contracts with approved cap exceptions.

•Both the league and city officials in Charlotte, N.C., are continuing to work toward signing a memorandum of understanding that would ultimately bring the NBA back to that city. A signed deal is hoped for by mid-January. The Charlotte Hornets now call New Orleans home after a move earlier this year and will open at home next week against the Utah Jazz, who formerly played in New Orleans.

•Work also continues on NBA TV, the new all-NBA, all-the-time channel the league is developing with AOL Time Warner. Stern hopes to have live games on the channel around midseason, and the first carriage agreements with cable systems in place next month. Comcast SportsNet chairman Jack Williams, however, ruffled feathers recently when he said he hoped the channel "never gets off the ground."

•The league is changing its model of WNBA franchise ownership in which investors will be able to own franchises outright instead of just the operational rights. The WNBA, a NBA subsidiary, announced Monday the Orlando Miracle will not return to the central Florida city next year. Stern said league officials are talking with three cities about a relocated team and two others about an expansion team. San Antonio, which has applied for a WNBA team in 2003, is at the top of those lists of potential cities.

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