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NBC Exit Strategy Begins NBA Spin

The NBA off NBC?

It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but, then, neither does “Michael Jordan, starting forward for the Washington Wizards.”

The glory days are over, let’s face it, and NBC, which is dumping the NBA after this season but keeping NASCAR, can either be commended for getting out while the getting is good or condemned for walking off the court in the middle of crunch time.

In a down economy, after losing $100 million on the NBA last season and projecting a $200-million loss in 2001-2002, NBC is breaking up the Laker dynasty in a way the Portland Trail Blazers or San Antonio Spurs never could. Because NBC is walking away from a 12-year relationship with the NBA, the next six years of Shaq and Kobe running roughshod will be divvied up among ABC and three cable networks--ESPN, TNT and the new AOL Sports channel.

According to the new contract, expected to be announced this week, ABC will televise only a smattering of games--10 to 15 during the regular season, plus the finals--turning the NBA, in effect, into a pay-television league.

Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, and AOL Time Warner, which owns TNT and AOL Sports, will pay a combined $650 million a season for NBA rights, an increase of $30 million a year over the current agreement with NBC and Turner.

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NBC Sports continues to downsize before our eyes. Four years ago, NBC had slices of each of the big three--the NFL, the NBA and major league baseball. But in 1998, NBC was outbid for the NFL by CBS, and last year, NBC handed baseball to Fox. After next June, the NBA will be gone as well.

As of mid-2002, NBC’s sports portfolio will consist of the Summer and Winter Olympics (through 2008), the U.S. Open and Ryder Cup (among other PGA Tour events), Wimbledon and the French Open, Notre Dame football, some horse races and some NASCAR, which NBC currently shares with Fox and Turner.

Prepare for the spin: NBC, stepping out boldly into the future, recasts itself as a “big-event” sports specialist, abandoning the mundane, everyday, regular-season routine--that’s what cable’s for, right?--and focusing instead on “proven” ratings winners equipped with their own built-in audiences.

And if you buy that, perhaps I can interest you in our latest piece of cutting-edge sports programming, “XFL Classic.”

In the continually changing landscape of modern television, today’s “major attraction” is tomorrow’s white elephant. Already, most of NBC’s post-NBA menu has a decided whatever-happened-to? feel.

The Olympics have been a slow-sliding diminishing return ever since Tonya Harding’s henchmen laid down their crowbars in 1994. Seen a lot of Marion Jones commercials lately? Lenny Krayzelburg making any Tarzan movies?

If Michelle Kwan doesn’t skate any better in Salt Lake City than she has lately, NBC will be holding news conferences in February to show how ratings for women’s bobsled are up over 1998, primarily because women’s bobsled was not an Olympic sport in 1998.

Notre Dame football ain’t what it used to be, as Bob Davie tried to tell people before George O’Leary began telling people what they wanted to hear.

Golf’s U.S. Open and Ryder Cup look good as long as Tiger Woods is around, but what happens to Wimbledon once Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi join Patrick Rafter in retirement? Andy Roddick, how strong are those shoulders, lad?

Really, the only major sporting events with guaranteed drawing power are the Super Bowl (as long as the Baltimore Ravens don’t keep qualifying), the BCS title game (although the Fiesta Bowl has the better matchup this time) and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which has been remarkably resilient in the face of player defections to the NBA, off-court scandal and Dick Vitale.

NBC’s decision to step away from the NBA is grounded pragmatically in the present.

Even with the return of the Jordan and the continuing saga of the-world-against-the-Lakers, NBA television ratings are down 35% from the 1997-98 season, often referred to by sports historians as “the last season Jordan could still jump.”

At this point, the NBA makes more sense for Disney, which would like some mainstream sports programming to help support its ABC prime-time lineup, and isn’t getting it from the NHL.

It makes sense as well for AOL Time Warner, which hopes to build its new sports channel around NBA telecasts and coverage.

The NBA, too, needed to make this break.

The league needed some live programming for its 24-hour NBA.com-TV channel and Commissioner David Stern, in an upset, found a way to avoid a fees decrease in a depressed economy, preserve the current salary cap and--no small achievement, considering the Nielsens--save face.

Let’s see Bud Selig pull off that kind of hat trick.

Still, it’s a sad time for NBC, which has lost each of the three major sports and has been reduced to contriving cheap gimmicks to distract the competition’s audience.

First the XFL, and now a planned special-edition “Fear Factor,” to run opposite Fox’s Feb. 3 Super Bowl telecast and feature a half-dozen Playboy playmates being covered with some variety of insect or vermin.

Just wait until NBC loses the NBA and has to resort to airing a pointless “special sports edition” of “The Weakest Link” during the basketball finals. Oh, right. That already happened.


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