With the NBA lockout finally over, the cable industry is
preparing to offer its subscribers a limited schedule while assessing the economic damage
The National Basketball Association will attempt to execute
a 52-game regular season after the players union and owners reached a contract agreement
last Wednesday. The season will begin in February and will most likely run to the end of
June, industry executives said.
The lockout, however, has already taken a major toll on the
league and cable: Lost will be close to 600 NBA games, as well as 47 Turner Sports NBA
telecasts and nearly 550 regional-sports network games before the league resumes play in
early to mid-February.
It was unclear at press time how Turner Network Television
would be compensated for the NBA telecasts it will lose due to the lockout. TNT has to pay
its $890 million cable rights fee to the league despite the work stoppage.
Sources close to the situation said that TNT would receive
some sort of financial rebate or gain more telecasts during its four-year deal to make up
for the losses.
In a prepared statement, Turner Sports said that it is
"working with the NBA to put together a comprehensive, revised schedule for both
networks" and looks forward to bringing fans "as complete a lineup of games as
possible beginning next month."
Neither TNT nor TBS Superstation suffered much of a ratings
loss during the NBA hiatus. TNT's ratings for replacement programming -- a mix of
movies and specials -- averaged a 1.6, down 6 percent compared what 18 NBA games drew last
year, according to its analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures.
Ratings for TBS' replacement programming actually rose
6 percent to a 1.7 compared to a 1.6 rating for eight games last year.
But cable research sources said both TNT and TBS
Superstation suffered a 35 percent to 45 percent drop-off in the coveted 18-34 male
demographic. However, about 75 percent of TNT's NBA ad inventory kicks in at the end
of the season and during the playoffs.
The regional-sports networks, however, will have a tougher
time recovering from the lockout. The regionals, whose ratings strength lies in games from
local professional sports teams, were the hardest hit economically, having lost millions
of dollars in advertising revenue, according to industry executives.
"It was tough with our advertisers, but we've
been in touch with them all through the lockout, " said Dan Ronayne, vice president
of marketing for Rainbow Sports, which owns 50 percent of Fox Sports Net and manages five
While many regional networks tried to move NBA advertisers
to replacement programming slots, those ratings -- while strong -- could not match up with
local NBA telecasts.
"The thing that hurt us the most is trying to replace
a Bulls game in Chicago or a Lakers game in Los Angeles," said Arthur Smith,
executive vice president of programming and production for Fox Sports Net. "The
business is built on the strong home-team ratings and the cross-promotion of other
programming from those games."
With the end of the lockout, the regionals now face a major
scheduling hurdle with the shortened season. The league, which is issuing new schedules
this week, has hinted that teams could play as many as five games a week. That could wreak
havoc for regional-sports networks trying to balance NBA games with National Hockey League
games and local college-sports programming.
In particular, networks such as Fox Sports Southwest that
telecast games from more than one basketball team face a horrific scheduling nightmare.
Without an official second channel to carry overflow games, the network has to squeeze
games from the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets together with games
from the hockey Dallas Stars, said Jon Heidtke, general manager for Fox Sports Southwest.
In addition, the network will add baseball games from the
Texas Rangers and Houston Astros when the season opens in April.
Another challenge for the industry and the league will be
to recapture fan interest. Several media polls conducted last week show that a majority of
fans are not interested in seeing a truncated NBA season.
But Heidtke believes that the fans will come back.
"At the end of the day sports fans are resilient, and
having the home-team phenomenon will help smooth the way," he said.
Eddy Hartenstein, president of DirecTV Inc., which offers
an NBA out-of-market package, suggested that the NBA may want to work with the
direct-broadcast satellite service to offer incentives to help win back disenfranchised
fans. He declined to say whether that might include offering the 1999 NBA League Pass
package for free.
One pay-per-view executive who wished to remain anonymous
said the league could work with cable operators to create a similar out-of-market package
for cable. The league did offer the NBA League Pass package to selected operators earlier
this year, but was rebuffed due to limited operator channel space.