NBA avoids full-court press, stays with Turner, NBC

Media Watch

November 11, 1997|By Milton Kent

With at least three networks and two other cable outlets waiting to up the ante, the NBA yesterday decided to keep its telecast packages right where they are, staying with NBC and Turner Sports, industry sources said yesterday.

The league, pending approval today by a vote of the Board of Governors, has settled on a four-year deal worth $2.4 billion, just as the exclusive negotiating period between the NBA, NBC and Turner was coming to an end.

The new figure is more than double the $1.1 billion the league grabbed in the current four-year contract, which expires after this season. In the current deal, NBC paid $750 million for its rights; it will pay an estimated $1.6 billion in this round. Similarly, Turner's fees rise from $350 million to $800 million.

ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN were known to be interested in grabbing the rights to the NBA, which got $700 million more than baseball did over one fewer contract year, thus establishing itself as the second most popular professional team sport. There will likely be more games and, alas, more commercials to come in the new pact, since Turner and NBC will have to pay for the rights somehow.

The high mark-up in basketball rights is likely a harbinger for what will happen later this year, when the NFL, which draws the biggest sports ratings, completes its negotiations with the networks. The NFL is finishing a four-year contract with ABC, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Turner for $4.4 billion, and is expected to receive at least $1.5 billion to $2 billion per season in the pending deal.

Rush to judgment

It's hard to blame ESPN for taking last weekend's Michigan-Penn State and Florida State-North Carolina football games and making them out to be the most important events in American sports history. After all, it had one of the games on its air, and the other was on the airwaves of its parent company, ABC.

But a few things about the weekend seemed a little, well, squirrelly. First, given that each of the four teams still has significant games to play, the level of coverage seemed way out of proportion, and the umbrella title of "Judgment Day" attached a level of hype that was unseemly and far beyond what the usually classy ESPN does.

More significantly, the weekend and how it was covered calls into question how appropriate it is for a news-gathering organization to sponsor -- as ESPN does currently and CNN before it, along with USA Today -- a poll, in a sport like college football where a champion is not decided on the field.

In fairness, no ESPN staffers vote on the coaches poll it sponsors, but the channel -- which largely ignored the coaches' survey last year when CNN sponsored it and now snubs the Associated Press poll -- is in a clear position to have an influence on bowl invitations, since Bowl Alliance slots are mostly determined by virtue of where a team lands in the poll. That's a no-no for an objective media.

Also, we couldn't help noting that just after sponsoring a much ballyhooed and successful town meeting on sportsmanship last week, it seemed incongruous that ESPN continually showed replays of a vicious hit in the Michigan-Penn State game that laid two players out for a considerable amount of time, and hardly looked sportsmanlike. Once or twice would have been fine, but the shot appeared at least five times in two days.

Shame of it all

Comedian Chris Rock, in his HBO program last week, took note that Marv Albert was to be interviewed by Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20," but with a "hitch; he agreed to be interviewed, but only if Hugh Downs got to watch."

Actually, Downs, the co-anchor of "20/20," decided to take the night off in protest of the interview's even taking place. By so doing, Downs exhibited some qualities that have been in short supply during the whole Albert ordeal: good sense and good taste.

Whoever suggested that Albert hit the road on this series of interviews (including with CNN's Larry King tonight and with David Letterman of CBS later this week) did him a serious disservice, for all this exposure will likely do is set up the former NBC sportscaster for more derision.

Presumably, Albert is taking this route to tell the truth, but one wonders, if he truly believes that he did nothing wrong, why he didn't take the stand in his own defense during the assault trial last month, rather than taking the coward's way out, as he is now.

Of course, the better question, given the high ratings from Friday, is why any of us should care.

Weekend ratings

Ratings for the 10 most watched sporting events in Baltimore last weekend:

Event .. .. .. ..Day .. .. ..Ch. .. .. ..R/S

N.E.-Buf. .. .. .Sun. .. .. .11 ... .11.3/21

Sea.-S.D. .. .. .Sun. .. .. .11 .. ..10.6/17

NYJ-Mia. .. .. ..Sun. .. .. .11 .. ...9.2/19

Ravens-Pit. .. ..Sun. .. .. ..2 .. ...6.8/10

Ravens-Pit. .. ..Sun. .. .. .ESPN .. ..6.0/9

Was.-Det. .. .. .Sun. .. .. .45 .. ...4.7/10

NBC pre-game .. .Sun. .. .. .11 .. ...4.6/11

Mich.-Penn St. ..Sat. .. .. ..2 .. ...4.6/11

Skate America ...Sun. .. .. ..2 .. .. .3.8/8

Neb.-Miss. .. ...Sat. .. .. ..2 .. .. .3.8/8

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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