NBA, Nets Talk Renewal

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The opening round of the National Basketball Association Playoffs is in full swing, but the league hopes to secure more than just viewers from ESPN and Turner Network Television during its two-month postseason run.

The NBA is currently in discussions with both networks to extend their current six-year rights deals, which expire after the 2007-08 season. Executives close to all three parties confirm the league wants to accelerate the process and possibly complete negotiations by mid year.

DIGITAL IN PLAY

But while network executives want to continue distributing NBA content, their sights are not only set on a package of live games for their linear networks, but also on digital-content rights for their respective multiplatform holdings.

ESPN and ABC’s current $2.5 billion deal and Time Warner’s $2.2 million agreement do not afford the rightsholders the ability to show game highlights or other NBA video content on their respective broadband or mobile platforms. Instead, such content, as well as the league’s 800-game out-of-market live package, is offered through NBA.com.

Both ESPN and TNT have made significant investments in the online and mobile video arenas and have aggressively sought out and secured digital rights with their recent sports pacts.

ESPN currently presents live college basketball and college football games through its ESPN360 broadband video service, which is sold directly to cable operators. The network will also offer the Summer X Games, National Invitational Tournament college-basketball games, Arena Football League contests, IndyCar auto racing and National Collegiate Athletic Association baseball, softball and lacrosse events on mobile phones, as part of its recent deal with Verizon Wireless’ VCast service.

“The key in more than half of what we discuss with the NBA in our current deal and our future deal is digital rights,” said ESPN senior vice president of programming and acquisitions Len DeLuca. “Basically, the NBA consumer is a younger, male consumer who really likes new media and new technology. Our challenge, and one that we are aggressively anxious to meet, is to deliver NBA content on ESPN and ABC wherever the NBA consumer consumes.”

Digital rights are also a major part of Turner’s renewal discussions with the league. Its Turner Sports New Media division has produced broadband video content for sports-circuit Web sites it operates, such as PGA.com and NASCAR.com. In addition, the company proffers TNT Overtime, a broadband video offering that runs on NBA.com and is based on the network’s NBA pre-game and post-game shows.

While stopping short of calling digital rights a deal-breaker, Turner Sports president David Levy said they are vitally important as it courts an extension.

“What consumers are looking for today is mobility; they want to access programming when and where they want it,” he said. “TNT is one of the brands that they like and enjoy, and if I don’t have NBA content on wireless, VOD and broadband, then we’re not living up to the brand. It has to be involved.”

NBA executives would only say that the league is talking to ESPN and TNT about extensions, declining to comment about the digital-rights issue.

PLAYOFF PUSH

After a subpar ratings performance during the regular season, ESPN and TNT hope to score significant ratings gains with the postseason. ESPN, flat with a 1.2 household ratings average for 67 regular-season games compared to the 2005-06 campaign, is confident that the network will improve on its 3.3 household rating garnered during last year’s playoffs.

The network is also looking to improve on its young adult and male demos, according to De Luca. During last year’s postseason the network posted double-digit growth in viewership among adults 18 to 49 (2.08 million in 2006), men 18 to 49 (1.5 million) and men 25 to 54 (1.4 million) compared to 2005.

ESPN, with exclusive coverage of the Western Conference finals, and ABC, home to The NBA Finals, will televise up to 44 live NBA postseason contests.

TNT, coming off a 9% decline in regular season ratings to a 1.0 average, will look to capitalize on strong first-round matchups like the Chicago Bulls versus the defending champion Miami Heat and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers against Steve Nash and the up-tempo Phoenix Suns to help match or surpass the 3.1 rating, up 4%, it posted for last year’s postseason. This year, TNT has exclusive coverage of the Eastern Conference finals.

“We’re coming off our biggest playoff year ever last year, and it looks like the matchups line up well for us,” Levy said.

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