NHL Outlook Chilly; NBA Off Its Game

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June 22, 2003 by Andrew Grossman

LOS ANGELES- In television, like in life, timing is everything. The National Hockey League and National BasketballABC SPORTS.com Association would certainly agree.

If you're going to flame out, the best time to do it is in the first year of a six-year deal, not the final year of a grossly inflated five-year $600 million contract. The NBA has four years to recover before it's time to renegotiate its television deal, while the NHL will soon stand for National (In) Hock League.

With franchises losing money and Stanley Cup Finals ratings off by 19%, the NHL is poised for a contract negotiation this year in which it will have no leverage and few options. ESPN paid four times what Fox Sports had ponied up for the NHL, partly because it needed programming for ESPN2 and partly because it thought Fox would bid aggressively to keep its package.

"(ESPN) doesn't need hockey like it did five years ago," one network source said.

If there's one lesson that has hit home following the postseason, it is the critical importance for most sports of having a strong cable partner and the dual revenue stream it carries from cable operator license fees.

Observers say that has given ABC/ESPN and, to a smaller degree, Fox Sports advantages over NBC and CBS in recent years in bidding for packages. While NBC has been able to exploit its cable networks successfully in order to make aggressive bids for the Olympic Games, it lacks the strong partner to do so week in and week out for major sports leagues, observers noted.

"That is a very significant development in our industry and is one both organized sports and the cable programming channels have to watch closely," said Neal Pilson, a consultant who formerly ran CBS Sports and advised the International Olympic Committee on its recent bidding auction for the 2010 and 2012 Olympic games.

Moreover, CBS' newly rebranded TNN (which lost a court battle last week to change its name to Spike TV), "can potentially be a sports platform for CBS," said one sports consultant who requested anonymity.

ABC/ESPN SPORTSThe NBA is getting ripped for its 35%-40% falloff in ratings, but both TNT and ABC/ESPN Sports still seem happy with their combined $4.6 billion package. Conference final ratings rose on cable, and both networks professed satisfaction with their regular-season results.

"The ratings are consistent with the deal that was negotiated," Pilson said. "Despite all the noise about NBA ratings, they were, in my viewpoint, anticipated and accounted for in the negotiations that took place between ESPN/ABC and Turner and the NBA."

Pilson said there had been a common assumption that ratings for the NBA Finals would fall off after the league's departure from NBC because the bulk of the playoffs were on cable and ABC is a weaker network in primetime. He also blamed the "unattractive matchup from a national TV perspective" of the New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs.

Moreover, said John Rash, senior vp at media marketing firm Campbull-Mithun in Minneapolis, the declining NBA and NHL ratings are not surprising "in a cluttered marquee-event schedule. ... It's increasingly challenging in a fractured viewing environment to engage audience attention even with the NBA Finals."

Added Mark Wyche, managing director of sports consultancy Bortz Media & Sports Group in Denver: "(With) the economics of this ... you can't just look at the broadcast side. In many of these cases, the distributor has both cable and broadcast companies, and therefore it's the overall package you're looking at."

What's the upshot for future rights deals after the NHL? Not much, executives and observers agreed, because the next deal on the table is the National Football League, which is a noted exception to the trend.

"As much as anything, the NFL has been successful in transcending sports into a social event," Rash said.