The Biz: TNT, ESPN give NBA deep bench

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So whose house is it, anyway?

When the National Basketball Association signed a new six-year, $4.6 billion TV-rights deal with Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner, the bulk of the league's games went to Disney's ESPN and AOL's TNT.

Now both networks are positioning themselves as the NBA's home-TNT is heading into its 19th season of coverage, ESPN its first in 19 years-and both have new ad campaigns to tout the games.

In ESPN's case, home is the literal theme of the campaign as the network's anchors and NBA stars are shown living under one roof and muddling through various family situations. The campaign is from Wieden & Kennedy, New York.

new digs

"We haven't had the league [since 1983] and we just wanted to communicate that ... it's back on ESPN," said Lee Ann Daly, senior VP-marketing, ESPN.

TNT's in-house campaign relies on its experience with the league and its star power. Former NBA standout Charles Barkley and Emmy Award-winning anchor Ernie Johnson will co-host a live talk show, "Listen Up!," prior to TNT's Thursday night weekly doubleheaders. Former NBA star Kenny Smith completes the trio on TNT's coverage.

"We think our talent is a clear point of differentiation ... from anybody else carrying the NBA," said Jeff Gregor, senior VP-sports marketing and programming, TNT. "Our message is that we want to create and feed this new franchise for TNT, that it's the only place to watch the NBA on Thursday nights."

Indeed, the league will only have a maximum of three games scheduled on Thursdays, with one game as a backup for TNT in case another game is postponed. TNT will televise 52 games in the 2002-03 season, which begins Oct. 29. ESPN and ESPN2 will air 76 games.

Ed Erhardt, president-ESPN/ABC Sports customer marketing and sales, said ESPN is 70% sold out for the season. "The marketplace is in full swing," Mr. Erhardt said. "We're in negotiations with most of the major players in the various categories." A spokesman for TNT said his network was about 75% sold for the season.

The NBA has renewed its sponsorships with America Online, American Express Corp., Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite and PepsiCo's Gatorade. Nike and Reebok are back, and the league added Lego, MBNA America Bank and Adidas. Several more deals are pending.

But TNT and ESPN won't be the only place to see NBA games. Disney's ABC will air 14 regular-season games and the NBA Finals. NBA TV, a joint venture between the league and AOL Time Warner available on digital cable, In Demand and DirecTV, will air games four nights a week beginning in February. The league itself will continue its in-house ad campaign from last season, "Love It Live." The first new spot will appear next week. Also, General Electric Corp.'s Telemundo will air 15 weekly Saturday games in Spanish, also beginning in February. It is the first time one of the major U.S. sports leagues has signed a deal to have its games broadcast in Spanish.

But with the bulk of games on cable, will the NBA fall off the radar screen, or does cable level the playing field? The NBA would like to reverse a precipitous ratings decline. Since its peak rating of 18.7 and a 33 share for the 1998 NBA Finals, viewership has dropped to a 10.2 rating and 19 share for this past June's championship series. Ratings for the NBA All-Star Game have also declined, going from a high of 14.3/22 in 1993 to a 5.1/8 share this past February.

"When you're talking about falling off the radar, that's mostly with the press," said Steve Stermberg, senior VP-director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA. "The core audience is going to watch NBA on cable. ... You're fragmenting the audience, but you're not necessarily having people spend less time watching the NBA."

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