NBA Presses for Cable Deals

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The National Basketball Association is evidently poised to announce new cable-centric TV rights packages, but MSOs may not share the pro hoops league's enthusiasm for one of the agreements, which calls for the establishment of a new channel with a 50-cent license fee.

According to sources and published reports, the NBA would partner with Turner Sports on a new service that would be home to four regular-season games per week. The league and Turner would jointly own the network, with parent AOL Time Warner Inc. paying some $175 million to $200 million annually. The parties would seek monthly subscriber fees of 50 cents.

Sources and published reports also indicated last week that the NBA has reached an agreement with ESPN and ABC, under which the cable network would carry 55 regular-season games on two nights, likely Fridays and Sundays, as well as the playoffs.

ABC would air 15 regular-season games, some early-round playoff action and the NBA Finals. Reports value the deal at $2.4 billion over six years.

Turner, meanwhile, is said to have inked a six-year, $1 million deal for 50 to 55 regular-season games that would probably air as doubleheaders on Thursday nights, the NBA All-Star Game and playoff action. TNT and ESPN would split coverage of the conference finals under these arrangements.

The NBA, whose current pact with NBC and Turner totaled $2.65 billion over four years, could announce the new rights deals as early as next week.

Representatives for ESPN, Turner and the NBA declined comment on the packages.

The jointly held channel, which may emerge from a conversion of CNN/Sports Illustrated, could be dubbed AOL Sports and carry such other live sports programming as Wimbledon tennis matches, National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) preliminaries, golf and National Lacrosse League matches.

Other sources say an entirely new network may be launched.

Some operators are already predicting that the NBA and Turner will have a difficult time selling in its new service on basic.

"The only way I see a majority of operators launching this service is on a pay tier," said one MSO executive. "It's difficult to imagine paying an increase to TNT, an increase to ESPN and a 50 cent surcharge to Turner, all to put NBA games on basic."

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