Turner Network Television last week finished cable’s coverage of the National Basketball Association playoffs with a ratings slam dunk. But its record-setting June 5 Detroit Pistons-Miami Heat game may be the last NBA cable telecast for a while if the league isn’t able to avert its second work stoppage in the last five years.
Although network executives are confident the league and its players union will reach a contract agreement, ESPN, TNT and Fox Sports Net are quietly developing contingency plans in case the NBA preempts any of its upcoming 2005-06 season due to a potential lockout.
As ABC televises the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Pistons this week, the league is prepared to lock out the players on July 1 if a new collective bargaining agreement is not finalized before the current deal expires June 30.
While an NBA spokesman said that the league is not as optimistic about reaching an accord as it was earlier this spring, when the two sides were seemingly headed toward an agreement, “we are doing our best to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible.”
If there is a prolonged lockout that eventually cancels part or all of the 2005-06 NBA season, sources close to the network said that TNT, ESPN and Fox Sports Net will not have to pay for lost games as part of their respective deals.
Representatives from the NBA, TNT, ESPN and FSN, whose regional sports networks have deals with 21 of the 29 U.S. NBA franchises, would not discuss specific lockout language in their respective NBA deals. During the NBA’s 1998-99 lockout which cancelled half the season, Turner Sports continued to pay its rights fee to the NBA, but was eventually compensated for the loss of 35 telecasts.
TNT and ESPN are halfway through their six-year contracts with the league, valued at $2 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively.
TNT, ESPN and Fox did confirm that they are working on secondary plans in case there is an NBA lockout, but refused to reveal specific plans until necessary.
For Fox, an NBA lockout would be devastating, considering that the National Hockey League, whose 2004-05 season was iced by a lockout, has yet to signal that it will resume play this season. Published reports indicate, though, that the owners and players have agreed to some form of a salary cap, which could lead to a settlement in the near future.
While FSN chief operating officer Randy Freer said most FSN regionals improved ratings with replacement NHL programming that figures to be more difficult to achieve if both pro sports leagues were off the air.
“Our core business is providing local events, and if we don’t have those events it is not a positive thing for our business,” he said.
While sanguine about an NHL return, if the league is unable to resume play this fall, Fox could cut all contractual ties with the league.
“There is a point in time where our contracts allow us the ability to say that this has been irreparably harmed and we’re walking away from this,” said Freer, without saying if FSN was nearing such a deadline.
On a national level, Turner Sports David Levy said TNT remains interested in the NHL if it resumes play, although it would have to come up with a financial deal structure vastly different from the one-year, $60 million option ESPN turned down two weeks ago. ESPN also said it would reconsider working with the NHL under a deal that more closely resembles NBC’s revenue-sharing agreement with the league, but league officials said it has no plans to further devaluate league by taking a rights-revenue cut.
If TNT’s June 6 Pistons-Heat game 7 Eastern Conference finals game is the last for a while on cable, at least the league went out with a bang.
Cable’s last pro hoops telecast went out strong, averaging a 7.5 household rating, the highest mark ever for an NBA playoff telecast, besting the 6.75 rating TNT recorded on May 31, 2004 for the Minnesota Timberwolves-Los Angeles Lakers Game 6 Western conference finals telecast.
Despite the breakout telecast, TNT finished its 44-game playoff run with a 3.0 rating, down 11% from a 3.4 rating last season. ESPN finished with a 2.6 rating for its 18 playoff telecasts, down from a 2.7 for 26 contests last season.