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NBA Shoots for TV Deals by Year-End

10/27/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

New York— While the National Basketball Association will tip off its new season this week, it’s already talking to cable carriers ESPN and TNT about extending their agreements once the current contracts expire after the 2007-08 campaign.

NBA Commissioner David Stern told Multichannel News that the league — about to enter the fifth season of its six-year, $4.6 billion rights deals with ESPN parent The Walt Disney Co. ($2.4 billion, including ABC broadcast coverage) and TNT parent Time Warner Inc. ($2.2 billion) — is talking to both parties about renewing the current agreements.

“I hope to finish extensions with our two incumbent partners by the end of the season,” he said.

INCUMBENTS’ GAME

The NBA appears to be in good negotiating position, having posted decent regular-season ratings increases last year on both TNT and ESPN. It’s also enjoying the emergence of several young superstars like Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, as well as strong, young teams like the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers.

“Ratings were up last year and we’re expecting them to be up again this year,” Stern said. “We have great schedules for our partners and most importantly, we have great recognition of our young, talented players.”

Stern said that he doesn’t expect any new cable networks crashing the party and bidding on NBA rights. The NFL Network has made noise that it wants to go after marquee sports content — the 41-million subscriber network unsuccessfully bid on one of Major League Baseball’s League Championship Series, which eventually went to Turner Broadcasting System’s TBS network.

“We’re very happy with our current television partners,” he said.

ESPN senior vice president of programming and acquisitions Len DeLuca said the network is “very open and willing” to discuss extending this relationship, before declining to address any possible terms. “Our relationship is good for ESPN and ABC, it’s good for the NBA and it’s good for the basketball fans.”

TNT president David Levy confirmed talks with the league and expressed confidence that Turner would continue its 22-year relationship with the NBA.

“It’s early and we have some time, but we absolutely believe in the product,” Levy said.

DIGITAL DESIRE

Levy did add that it would talk to the NBA about securing some package of digital content for its burgeoning Turner Sports New Media division. The group already owns or operates several sports broadband sites, including Accselect.com, PGA.com, PGATour.com, and NASCAR.com and would like to add some more NBA content to its portfolio. Turner currently produces a broadband video service for NBA.com, based on video clips and reports from its Inside the NBA Thursday night pre-game and post-game shows.

The NBA has a broadband video service as part of its NBA.com site, which includes live game broadcasts for users purchasing its “NBA League Pass” pay-per-view package of out-of-market games.

“[Turner Sports Media] is a valuable property for us and if we’re going to extend that brand further, you want the NBA to be there,” Levy said.

HIGHER RATINGS HOPES

On the TV screen, the networks hope to make a fast break on the ratings front this season by showcasing the up and coming NBA stars and teams on and off the court.

Levy expects TNT to improve on last season’s 1.1 household rating, which was up 5% from the 1.0 rating average from the 2004-05 season. Turner will televise 52 regular-season games, mostly via exclusive doubleheaders on Thursday nights, during the 2006-07 season. Its package also encompasses the NBA All-Star Game and attendant weekend festivities, plus the bulk of the playoff action, highlighted by exclusive coverage of the Eastern Conference finals.

TNT’s Inside the NBA pre- and post-game show will return this season, along with its hosts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson.

In fact, the network will return all of its on-air talent, including such game announcers as Marv Albert, Doug Collins, Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller, as well as courtside reporter Craig Sager.

To help promote the season, Levy pointed to the network’s “Let The Truth Be Told” on-air marketing campaign, in which NBA players such as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal create their own spots describing life in the NBA. The campaign is currently highlighting several spots featuring rap artist (and New Jersey Nets co-owner) Jay-Z.

“We need to be real, credible and authentic,” Levy said. “These are the things that we look to make a priority for our NBA telecasts.”

ESPN has rolled out its own promotional campaign dubbed “Will You Be Watching When?” that will promote historical moments of the NBA, as well as the potential for future memories through the exploits of today’s players.

“We really want to tie together what’s great about the NBA, from its emerging stars like Dwayne and LeBron to veterans like Shaq and Kobe,” DeLuca said. “We want to take the new stars and combine them with the history of the league.”

DeLuca said he expects ratings for ESPN’s 71 game regular-season schedule to improve on last season’s 1.1 rating, which was flat from the 2004-05 season.

ABC ACTION

ESPN sister network ABC, which is also home to a number of playoff games, including the NBA Finals, will televise at least 19 regular-season games this season, beginning Christmas Day with a matchup between Wade and O’Neal’s defending champion Miami Heat and Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.

DeLuca said ESPN’s Wednesday and Friday night games, coupled with ABC’s Sunday afternoon coverage, gives pro basketball fans a cohesive sampling of NBA action. “Our goal is to create a destination theme between Wednesday to Friday to Sunday through our promotion, our schedule and our talent,” he said.

DeLuca downplayed reports that ABC, in the wake of success with a new package of college football games on Saturday nights, is contemplating scheduling games in that time slot.

“It is too premature to talk about any plans for NBA games on Saturday night,” he said.

September