NBA Courting New Media

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With 18 broadcast cameras circling the court at Conseco Fieldhouse and a blimp hovering overhead, NBC should have most of the angles covered during tonight’s NBA championship between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.

So why does the National Basketball Assn.’s entertainment division have 17 video crews, 15 still photographers and half a dozen 16-millimeter-film crews capturing game action and actor Jack Nicholson’s reaction? And why are such players as Shaquille O’Neal polishing plans to bypass traditional media avenues and stream their own post-game analysis live over the Internet?

Call it Must-See TV meets around-the-clock TV. Credit the multimedia army to NBA Commissioner David J. Stern’s bold, $10-million bet on TV, a 24-hour television channel that forms the foundation of professional basketball’s interactive business plan.

Advertisement TV is Stern’s first step toward the ultimate convergence of television and the Internet. The NBA on June 5 signed a joint-marketing agreement with America Online, and industry sources expect the league to sign another agreement with Yahoo that will expand the NBA’s online presence in foreign markets. TV, the only sports channel created by a pro league, isn’t yet interactive--and it’s only available via DirecTV and certain digital cable systems. The screen looks data-clogged: Video rolls in one quadrant, a flurry of statistics covers another corner and there’s a fast-moving news ticker across the bottom. TV’s content is the basketball equivalent of C-SPAN. Basketball junkies can revel in gavel-to-gavel coverage of Larry Bird news conferences, hours of vintage film gleaned from the NBA archives and a perpetual stream of commercials for the NBA and WNBA.

Stern is betting that, as online technologies mature, the league’s interactive platform will evolve into a powerful engine. He envisions business-to-consumer sales points, as well as the opportunity to license NBA content to online partners.

Stern is confident that the Internet, like television, will drive revenue. But he doesn’t pretend to know how large the online revenue stream will be. “When I negotiated the first cable [television] deal in 1979, it was worth $400,000 a year,” Stern said during an interview prior to Game Two. “This year, its value is $225 million. I couldn’t talk about that progression at the outset, and I can’t talk about the Internet’s progression. But they are both two huge developments.”

Internet observers say the NBA’s online move makes sense because the league must bolster its appeal to younger consumers who are growing up online. “They’ve seen [television] viewership go down and you can’t count on growing gate revenue,” said Patrick Keane, a senior analyst for Jupiter Communications Inc., a New York-based consulting firm. “This is revenue diversification, because the Internet offers a chance to broaden audience acquisition.”


Team owners, broadcast partners, arena operators and players also envision a pot of gold at the end of the broadband pipeline. The company line at the NBA is that owners and players can work together to grow the overall economic pie.

But it’s clear that such players as O’Neal want to put their own spin on the Internet. O’Neal’s plan to stream an interview live on the Internet after one of this season’s championship games hasn’t yet materialized. But O’Neal hopes to be in position as the Internet reshapes how traditional media function.

“If you really want to find out Shaq’s innermost thoughts, his context for the night’s game, there are a variety of different ways to do that,” said Leonard Armato, O’Neal’s longtime agent. The NBA, Armato said, clearly has the right to broadcast games starring its most valuable player, and O’Neal is obligated to appear during league-related news conferences.

But, the further players move from the court, the greater control they have over how their images, voices and personalities are used. “The balance of power in an interactive economy is dramatically shifting,” Armato said. “And as the power shifts, it’s moving closer to the source of the content.”

The debate over who controls content already has sparked legal challenges.

There’s a good chance that fans looking for official Web sites of such well-known athletes as Kobe Bryant will end up at, a division of Santa Monica-based Broadband Sports Inc. Bryant is one of nearly 300 pros who’ve allied themselves with AthletesDirect, a competitor of

The site also is home to more than 50 National Football League stars, including departing San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young. And, when the veteran retired Monday, his AthletesDirect Web site promised to deliver a number of “exclusives” about his retirement.


But if the NFL Players Assn. and NFL Players Inc., the union’s business arm, get their way, AthletesDirect would be forced to break up its all-star football team. The union has asked a U.S. District Court judge to prohibit AthletesDirect from signing deals with NFL players.

“We have the right to group licensing agreements involving six or more players,” said Players Inc. President Doug Allen. “It’s the same issue as with trading cards and action figures.”

David Carter, a principal with the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, suspects fans--not leagues or players--will determine which sites are successful. If the best known players are on a non-league site, Carter said, “ultimately, fans are going to react as if that’s the league site.”

League owners know that players want a piece of the action. “It’s going to be an issue for collective bargaining,” said NBA Entertainment President Adam Silver. “But the players know that the salary cap is based on revenue-sharing--and 55% of gross revenue goes to players. So to the extent we can grow the pie together, it’s possible to maximize the good for everyone involved.”

Silver said the league’s “ultimate goal” is to get NBA content in front of as many people worldwide as is possible.

Most fans will get their fill from NBC’s broadcasts, but the league hopes that TV will reach 10 million viewers during the next few years. TV is part of the seasonal $169 league pass program available to satellite and digital cable subscribers. An estimated 800,000 sports fans are already daily visitors at during the season.


What all those fans are looking for is unique content. Look closely at tonight’s NBC broadcast, and you’ll see NBA crew members in black vests who are scrambling to put that content together.

Friday, nearly 200 full-time and freelance crew members went to work at Staples Center. Some crews were told to focus on such celebrities as Penny Marshall and Nicholson. Others were directed to film athletes making their way from cars to locker rooms. One crew was stationed in the Lakers’ locker room to record Coach Phil Jackson’s pregame meeting.

Just minutes before game time, an NBA film crew led by veteran photographer Michael Winik walked into the Pacers’ locker room, where they captured Reggie Miller suiting up. Minutes later, Winik’s three-man crew filmed Dustin Hoffman as he chatted with Pacers star Mark Jackson in the tunnel leading to the court.

Winik acknowledged that the NBA crews won’t use footage that portrays players in an embarrassing light. That’s the trade-off, he acknowledged, for gaining access to places were regular media crews aren’t welcome.

Sports marketers, though, caution that the NBA’s coverage must ring true with increasingly jaded fans. “The beauty of sports is that there’s so much stuff you can dig into,” said Brandon Steiner, New York-based sports marketing executive. “And there’s so much good journalism going on that the NBA can’t become just ‘milk and cookies.’ The NBA really should be delivering inside stuff to their fans, because that’s what they’re craving for.”

Along with content, the NBA’s entertainment division is focusing on delivery. A few years ago, most of what crews shot was held for the annual highlights video. Now, still shots are moved to the NBA’s Web site in less than five minutes. HDTV footage shot during the game ends up in such NBA-produced shows as NBC, ESPN and Nickelodeon.


In May, NBA’s Web site unveiled syncTV, which lets fans pick the shots they want to see. Use the keyword search function--say, Austin Croshere and dunks--and syncTV immediately returns footage of the Pacers player’s dunk shots.

Content--such as the instant replays that fans package for themselves on syncTV--is at the heart of Stern’s online plan. It’s clear that the league has grand plans to turn all those pictures into business opportunities, either by selling it directly to fans or by licensing it to other sports-related sites.

Stern maintains that TV isn’t a threat to its traditional broadcast partners. But it’s also clear that the league might one day have the machinery in place to produce all of its broadcast, cable and Internet shows.

“No question about it, the leagues are all trying to figure out the long-term Internet strategies,” said Michael Levy, president and chief executive of Sportsline Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Web site. “It’s also clear that the leagues all know more about the Internet than they did a few years back.”


Full-Court Press

The NBA is producing an increasing number of broadcast, cable and Internet products.

Here are some of the ventures:


TV Program Affiliation NBA Inside Stuff NBC NBA Matchup ESPN TV DirecTV/Viewers Choice NBA 2Ball at the Finals Special Nickelodeon NBA Action Fox Sports Net Vintage NBA ESPN Classic NBA Jam International distribution



Source: NBA