- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Every day in this country, officials from a conference or league-owned sports network cry foul over their inability to get wide distribution from cable and satellite providers. If it’s not the folks from the NFL Network, it’s officials from the Big Ten Network, the NHL Network or the Baseball Channel.

But long before the launch of most of these networks, there was NBA TV, a league-owned network with exclusive rights to many NBA games and round-the-clock coverage of basketball.

Since 1999, NBA officials were content to offer the channel to cable and satellite providers as part of a special “sports tier” that usually included an array of regional sports networks and other sports channels. The production was solid, but it reached only the most ardent basketball fans.

But now it appears NBA TV will get wider distribution as part of a new deal that would hand control of the channel to Turner Broadcasting, which would have the power to distribute the channel on Time Warner Cable systems. (Time Warner Inc. owns both Turner and Time Warner Cable). League officials said they are seeking distribution on Time Warner’s digital tier.

Under the agreement, the NBA would shift the operations of the network to Atlanta, where Turner-owned TNT already produces thousands of hours of NBA coverage each year. Turner would share in some profits and also take over control of NBA.com.

The NBA had hoped to complete a deal around the same time it completed its new broadcast contracts in June but is still working out the details. A deal with Time Warner Cable would, at least in theory, place pressure on other major cable operators to begin carrying the channel on a more widely distributed tier. NBA TV has 12 million subscribers.

“We had anticipated a couple of years ago that the cable industry would be putting more muscle behind their promotion of the sports tier, but they seemed to be ambivalent about which way they were going,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “We envisioned being content with an expanded marketing muscle behind a sports tier approach. But that really is not something that the cable industry has been particularly formidable about. So we’re now seeking broader distribution.”

The NBA’s decision to seek greater reach for its sports network is a long time coming. Cable operators have never pumped big bucks into promoting their sports tiers, which often consist largely of soccer channels and out-of-market regional sports networks. With the NFL, NHL and several major sports conferences seeking broader distribution for their networks, the NBA is smart to follow suit, though it seems like it should have tried sooner.

SportsBiz Shorts

The NBA’s new contract with ESPN and TNT gives broad, unprecedented rights to allow the companies to use the Internet, cell phones and other platforms to distribute NBA content. The contract does not kick in until next season, but the effects of that contract will start to be seen this year, NBA officials said.

“I think ESPN is actively engaged in discussions to distribute their signals through cellular carriers, other digital platforms,” deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. “I think you’re going to begin to see the exploitation of those rights this year.”

Indeed, ESPN announced yesterday that all of its NBA games will be simulcast on ESPN360.com and ESPN Mobile TV and that it will debut NBA-related shows exclusive to those platforms.

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