Commentary > SportsBiz
NBA: No Broadcasts Available
Shift of basketball playoff games from free TV is a sign of cable's strength, sports' weakness.
April 18, 2003: 4:33 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The National Basketball Association playoffs start this weekend, but if you don't have cable or satellite TV, you better not blink or you'll miss them.

Walt Disney Co. (DIS: Research, Estimates), which won the main broadcast rights deal for the league away from NBC starting this season, will put as few as eight and no more than 13 games on its ABC broadcast network, out of a possible 105 games that will be played through mid-June.

The rest of the games will be on Disney's ESPN sports cable network, cable network TNT, satellite TV network NBA TV, or some of the teams' local broadcast partners, many of which are on cable as well. Disney paid $2.4 billion for a six-season deal, about the same per-year payments as NBC had made under the previous rights deal.

Last year NBC showed 35 playoff and NBA final games out of the 71 played. But the network is pulling back on sports rights deals, having given up the NBA, the National Football League, and Major League Baseball broadcasts over the course of the last six years.

"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 Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, in January of 2002 when NBC lost the NBA. "In the future, it will become almost impossible for broadcast television sports to match the power of those 'sub' fees, which are unique to the cable world."

The shift to cable isn't one that particularly concerns sports executives or even their advertisers. The number of homes that have cable or satellite has now reached 83 percent. With the large number of sporting events now on cable, those who are sports fans are generally split between one of two categories - those with cable or satellite television, and those who can't afford either, which makes them less attractive to advertisers.

The NBA concedes its shift to cable is part of a trend that won't be reversed.

"You're going to see enormously strong products like the Olympics and Monday Night Football remain strong network programming, and you are going to see programming that controls audiences on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon ... [that will] still be attractive to a certain degree to the over-the-air networks," said NBA Commissioner David Stern recently. "But then [for other sports programming] you are going to see a migration to cable."

But there is another factor in far fewer games appearing on ABC than on ESPN -- there just aren't as many viewers for the NBA playoff games or other major sporting events as there used to be.

The subscriber fees collected by ESPN don't really factor in when splitting up the games. ESPN would likely be able to negotiate the same subscriber fees whether Disney put 13 games on ABC and 31 on ESPN or vice versa. And higher ratings that the games could be expected to win on ABC could mean more advertising revenue.

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In an era of high ratings for reality shows such as "The Bachelor," even a third-place network like ABC can do better financially putting the early round games on ESPN and sticking with entertainment programing on the broadcast network.

The networks would rather not eat up their May schedule, when ratings "sweeps" help set ad rates for the coming year and each network is airing its strongest possible original programing.

Last year, NBC had the best ratings during sweeps -- a 9.2 average -- as Rachel had her baby on "Friends" and Dr. Greene died on "ER." But it could have had an even better sweeps if not for the early round games it carried that gave it only a 5.6 rating.

Major team sports have seen their ratings on a slow, steady slide in the era of 100 channels, DVDs and video games competing for time spent in front of the living room television.

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The finals, even one as one-sided as last year's rout of the New Jersey Nets by the Los Angeles Lakers, still pull in a decent audience, with more than 10 percent of homes tuning into most games. And the finals start after sweeps is over. But the early rounds have to have a really terrific series -- like the Lakers-Kings Western Conference Finals -- to get decent ratings. And that can't be assured when the playoffs begin.

So ABC will show each game of the NBA finals - in June, when sweeps is over. But in the early rounds it'll only show a maximum of six other games out of a possible 98 and perhaps as few as four. And sports, even in the postseason, will continue its move toward being "Must Pay TV" rather than "Must See TV."  Top of page

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