ESPN, TNT Set for NBA Playoff Run

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Encouraged by their solid regular-season performances and optimistic about post-season schedules, ESPN and Turner Network Television are expecting coverage of the National Basketball Association playoffs to generate breakaway ratings.

Through April 6, ESPN has averaged a 1.21 household rating for its weekly Wednesday and Friday night games during the 2002-03 season, the first campaign in a six-year, $2.2 billion deal.

The ratings mark a 54 percent increase over the 0.81 ESPN averaged during those time slots last year, according to the network.

Meantime, TNT's exclusive Thursday night doubleheaders averaged a 1.2 rating through April 3, up 20 percent over last year's Thursday night average of 1.0, but flat when compared with Turner Sports' full 2002 regular-season NBA coverage: weekly Tuesday and Wednesday night games on TBS Superstation and TNT.

Turner Sports president David Levy said TNT's strategy of saving attractive matchups like the April 10 Los Angeles Lakers-Sacramento Kings contest for the latter part of its schedule has positioned it to enter the playoffs with momentum. The surge began with the 6.6 mark the network dunked for the Feb. 9 NBA All-Star Game.

"We said from the beginning that we would back-load the schedule to increase our ratings, and that has proven to work," Levy said.

Beginning April 19, TNT will televise as many as 53 playoff games, including exclusive telecasts of the Western Conference finals, while ESPN nabs exclusive Eastern Conference finals rights as part of its up to 31 post-season telecasts. ESPN figures to go into the playoffs with momentum of its own as televises what will likely be Michael Jordan's last game on April 16.

The league's in-house cable network, NBA.TV, will air as many as seven first-round playoff telecasts — all in high-definition format. NBA Commissioner David Stern said last Thursday that the network would have MSO carriage deals by Labor Day.

Ad inventory tight

Turner Sports has already sold 88 percent of its playoff advertising avails, while ESPN is at a reported sell-through level of 90 percent.

As both networks will offer an unprecedented number of playoff contests, executives are expecting outstanding returns. But neither network would reveal their playoffs ratings guarantees to advertisers.

"Given the strength of our playoffs schedule, we've had a really good run — it's basically the old NBC package," Turner Sports senior vice president of sports sales Trish Frohman, said, referring to the Peacock Network's 12-year NBA deal that expired in 2002.

Frohman said TNT's enhanced playoff schedule has also brought a number of new advertisers to the network, including Verizon Communications Inc., Gatorade and beer brewers Miller and Coors.

WNBA in peril

In other NBA-related news, the six-year-old Women's National Basketball Association could be extinct by April 18 if the league cannot reach a collective bargaining agreement with the players.

Stern last week vowed to cancel the 2003 WNBA season if it could not bridge a reported $900,000 salary-cap gap and free-agency issues, according to published reports.

If the league goes under, it's unclear how the NBA would compensate WNBA cable-television rights holders ESPN and Oxygen. An NBA spokesman would only say that the league would "cross that bridge" if and when necessary.

ESPN, which averaged a 0.29 rating for its 2002 WNBA coverage — the first season of a six-year agreement with the league — said it hopes that the two sides "can resolve their differences."

Representatives from female-skewed network Oxygen, whose two-year deal with the WNBA ends after the 2003 season, could not be reached for comment at press time.

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