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NBA TV Has Big Plans for Season

Oct 31, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On NBA TV, Adidas is sponsoring an on-screen close that ticks off the seconds until the regular season begins this week.

In addition to the games on rights holders TNT, ESPN and ABC, the NBA broadcasts games on NBA TV four nights a week. NBA TV is offering more games in high definition this season and is creating a VOD highlight package for cable operators to provide to subscribers.

NBA TV, starting its sixth season, is planning to launch new programming and features. One key is an enhanced “bottom line” graphic that will carry scores, stats and other information to hoops fans. It is also extending its pre- and post-game programming.

NBA TV was the first of the league-run cable channels. “We’ve become, it’s hard to believe, one of the originals in this space of branded sports networks. A lot of people are looking up at us. So we’re feeling good in our place heading into our sixth year,” said Gregg Winik, executive VP, NBA Entertainment and executive producer, NBA TV.

Mr. Winik declined to discuss the network’s financial performance. But he said, “We definitely are on plan, having both satellite providers and the large MSOs and being available in 66 million homes at this point is where we want to be.”

But while NBA TV has deals with distributors reaching 66 million homes, it has only about 10 million subscribers, fewer than the year-old NFL Network. Cable operators, complaining about the high cost of sports programming, balked at putting the NBA TV on the basic tier. Eventually, the league agreed to carriage on digital tiers, which are steadily gaining subscribers.

“If you’re a basketball fan, you have to have NBA TV. It’s pure and simple,” Mr. Winik said. “The general cable networks and over-the-air networks can devote chunks of time, three hours here, and that will always be the place for big events. But if you’re a round-the-clock NBA hoops fan, if you’re a player of fantasy basketball, if you want to know how your team is doing on a minute-by-minute basis, the best place on television to get it is NBA TV. The only place.”

“All the original programming and studio programming has really taken us to a new level,” said Steve Herbst, VP of programming at NBA TV. One project the network is working on is a documentary about Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere, who played for the Knicks, coached for the Pistons and pitched for the White Sox.

Nevertheless, “I like when the games start and the season starts,” Mr. Herbst said. The network is launching a show called “NBA Talk.” The nightly 5 p.m. program, hosted by fantasy hoops expert Rick Kamla, precedes the network’s studio show, “NBA TV Insiders” and “NBA TV Live,” the pre-game show. Mr. Kamla stays on duty till 1 a.m., when he hosts “NBA TV’s Fantasy Hoops.”

The shows will get information about the teams and players from videophones installed in each arena that transmits over the Internet and are controlled from the network’s control rooms in Secaucus, N.J.

The network also worked with video game maker EA Sports to freshen its on-air look, including its new bottom-line graphic. “It’s going to be very unique, with different colors, rotating scores and alerts when breaking news is happening,” Mr. Herbst said. “It’s something that’s really going to enhance the channel.”

The pre-season will end with a 72-hour countdown clock sponsored by Adidas, which is launching a new Tracy McGrady basketball shoe during the league’s premiere week. NBA TV showed behind-the-scenes features on the making of the shoe and the new commercial promoting it.

Once the clock ticks down to zero, NBA TV will urge viewers to flip to TNT, which will show the opening game of the season while NBA TV dips into its programming library. “We always take care of our television partners,” Mr. Herbst said.

Ad sales executives at both Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC said they’re excited about the new season.

But one ad sales executive said the NBA’s decision to put the bulk of its games on cable has diminished its impact.

“I think they’ve lost a little bit of their luster” since the games were on NBC two years ago, Larry Novenstern, senior VP and director of national buying at Deutsche, said. With so many game on cable, “ratings in general are down, since you’re comparing over-the-air ratings to cable ratings,” he said.

Mr. Novenstern expects networks to seek increases in the mid-single- to high-single-digit range and noted that there are a number of sponsors who have multiyear deals, as well as companies in the sneaker, video game and sports drink business that always buy the NBA.

“Right now I see a constant supply versus a constant demand,” he said, anticipating the networks will get minor increases. “It’s still early. It doesn’t really start on a national basis till Christmas.”

Christmas is when ABC will air its first game, which will pit Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal against Kobe Bryant and the rest of his former L.A. Laker teammates.

The Christmas game has become a big deal for ABC. “We’re experiencing a lot of demand for it,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN ABC Sports customer marketing and sales. “So we’ve been able to use that game as a driver for people to buy that game and also receive other inventory as well around that game. We’ve used it as a tentpole.”

Mr. Erhardt said fewer than five commercials were left in the Christmas game and that overall, “We’re pacing about 15 percent ahead of where we were last time.” Its key deals with Verizon, Toyota, General Motors and Kia for pre-game, post-game and other in-game sponsorships remain in place.

“The NBA has a lot of buzz about it,” he said.

Trish Frohman, senior VP of sales and sponsorship at Turner Sports, said the move of Mr. O’Neal to the Miami Heat will bolster TNT’s playoff coverage, since its got the Eastern Conference finals this year. “The timing couldn’t be better,” she said.

“We’re out in the marketplace preaching the message that our package is just not ratings points. We have the best assets that the NBA has to offer. Exclusive Thursday night All-Star games, exclusive second round of the playoffs as well as the Eastern Conference Finals and courtside signage,” she said.

Turner was in a strong position a year ago, so it hasn’t seen a big uptick in its pacing, but she said she’s seeing CPM growth in the high-single-digit range.

A new sponsor for TNT’s pre-game show, Nokia, replaced Gatorade, which will continue as in important NBA sponsor, Ms. Frohman said. As part of the deal, TNT will keep its cameras rolling after the live pre-game show airs and tape bonus footage of host Ernie Johnson and analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith discussing the game and other topics. On-air mentions will direct viewers online to learn how to receive the extra content, available exclusively on Nokia phones equipped with video playback capability. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Verizon, sponsor of the halftime show, Hyundai, sponsor of “Inside the NBA,” and Southwest, which sponsors TNT’s game breaks, all return this season.