NBA’s On a Cold Streak

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Turner Network Television and ESPN failed to make a fast break out of the ratings box with their National Basketball Association coverage in November.

The presidential election, as well as a flurry of off-season player movement and team changes, worked against early NBA ratings performances, according to executives from the networks.

Both, though, expect pro-basketball ratings to rise as the season progresses — either helped by or despite the fallout from the much-criticized, media-hyped Nov. 19 brawl between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans.

DOWN 7% TO 20%

Through Nov. 26, ESPN averaged a 1.4 rating for 13 Wednesday and Friday night telecasts, down 7% from a 1.5 for 15 games over the corresponding period last year, according to network officials. The decrease has been more dramatic for TNT, whose ratings have dropped 20% to a 1.3 over 10 games, compared to a 1.7 rating for 12 games last season.

On a more positive note, Fox Sports Net reported a 6% increase, to a 2.4 average rating, for the NBA games aired by its 20 owned and affiliated regional sports networks, representing 21 of the 30 pro-hoops league’s franchises. (The numbers exclude ratings from FSN-owned Sunshine Network, which carries both Miami Heat and Orlando Magic games, but does include Comcast SportsNet’s Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards telecasts).

Turner Sports president David Levy said he’s not concerned about the sluggish start, noting that much of TNT’s ratings decline can be attributed to the fact that its season-opening doubleheader went head-to-head with presidential election coverage on Nov. 2. That night, TNT’s Houston Rockets-Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers-Denver Nuggets games averaged a 1.4 rating, well short of the 2.7 average rating posted by the season-opening doubleheader of Dallas Mavericks-Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns-San Antonio Spurs on Oct. 28, 2003.

He also said fans are still getting used to new look of many NBA franchises, due to the numerous off-season player moves. The shifts have created more competitive teams, said Levy, which will benefit TNT in terms of selecting more quality games for its schedule as the season unwinds.

BRAWL EFFECT

Network executives said the fight that marred the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons game, televised by ESPN, will not adversely affect future NBA viewership. The game gave the league a black eye and forced the suspensions of nine NBA players, including Pacers star Ron Artest, who was suspended for one year. Artest slugged it out out with fans in the stands after he was struck by a beer cup.

“The brawl was a one-time incident, and I think [NBA commissioner] David Stern handed out suspensions quickly and fans will be prosecuted accordingly,” said Levy, who noted that advertisers have not bolted from TNT’s telecasts.

“At the end of the day, it was a terrible event, very unpopular and an embarrassment to all sides.”

Network executives said the incident has not cost ESPN any viewership or ad sales. “We haven’t seen any defections,” ESPN/ABC Sports Customer Marketing and Sales president Ed Erhardt said. “Nobody said, 'We are pulling our business.’ ”

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