With new TV deal, Lakers are taking the little guy out of the picture

Slowly, forcefully, chillingly, like Ron Artest leaning on Paul Pierce in the paint, the Lakers have been pushing their average fans into irrelevance.

First, they nudged them from Staples Center courtside. Then they dragged them out of the lower level. Soon, even the price of nosebleed seats required the opening of a vein, and the heart of Laker Nation was dumped into the street.

Well, the thinking was, at least they can still watch them for free on television.


Not so fast, as the long, cold arms of the Lakers are now preparing to shove their average fans out of their own homes.

In striking a 20-year agreement with Time Warner Cable that begins in 2012, the Lakers are removing themselves from free TV for all but the occasional national network telecasts, a stunning move by a team whose popularity was built by the of sort of grass-roots fans on whom they are pulling the plug.

Beginning in 2012, only those rare Lakers games found on ABC will be free, as most of the schedule will be accessible only through a pay-TV service — cable or satellite providers such as Time Warner, DirecTV, Charter and Cox. For the several million in town who have such services, this will probably mean a small monthly increase in their bill, but it shouldn’t dramatically change their viewing habits.

But did you know that about 620,000 homes in this area do not have a pay-TV service? Based on the 2000 U.S. census average of 2.59 people per household, that’s roughly 1.6 million people, or a city roughly the size of Phoenix, and imagine if none of those people could ever watch the Suns on television? How long do you think the Suns would continue to exist?

The Lakers have no such worries, apparently, viewing a mere 1.6 million people as no more important than a scratch on Lamar Odom’s head.

“They became the Los Angeles Lakers on the backs of average Los Angeles fans who loyally built their brand,” said Steve Fisher. “Now they’ve forgotten about Los Angeles and become the Time-Warner Lakers.”

Fisher, a middle-aged Montrose marketing executive, does not have cable television, preferring instead to work with a roof antenna, Netflix, and about a $75-a-month savings.

He has enjoyed watching the Lakers this season on Channel 9 — the free channel will show 41 games — and in a couple of other games on national network television. He is able to follow the team and talk about the team without having to spend the big money to actually watch the team in person, which is not only good for his wallet, but good for that Lakers brand.

And in less than two seasons, his home team will voluntarily become dead to him.

“I don’t know how you continue to build a brand by continuing to eliminate your audience,” Fisher said. “What does it mean for a team to be part of a city? Can that team really lock out anyone in that city that doesn’t want to pay to watch any kind of game?”

These are all questions I needed to ask Tim Harris, the Lakers’ senior vice president of business operations and chief marketing officer. In the past, he’s been viewed as a community-minded guy and is usually very accessible, but on Tuesday he wasn’t available, so spokesman John Black emerged to take the heat.

Under the new deal, are there any plans to make any games available on free TV?

“No plans,” said Black. “But we fully expect Time Warner to come up with a distribution plan to make our games available to the largest number of people.”

But how can you ignore 1.6 million people?

“As technology changes the world, the number of people who only have over-the-air television is getting smaller and smaller,” Black said. “We have to look at the big picture, and how that one disadvantage is being outweighed by other advantages.”

Black argued that the Lakers are one of the last teams to have a significant number of games on free TV, and, indeed, several other NBA teams have already eliminated free TV.

“In a lot of ways, we’re a dinosaur,” he said.

Yeah, but they’re also the Lakers, a professional team as closely tied to a community as any team outside of Green Bay, Wis. Is it really worth it to exclude a sizeable portion of that community simply because their interest is no longer profitable?

“It’s a bad move if the Lakers don’t put at least some of their games on free TV,” said Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based Sportscorp Limited consultant group. “Basketball games on free TV can be looked at as a free three-hour commercial. To ignore that opportunity is to make a big mistake.”

Ganis, noting that even the super-rich New York Yankees show a spate of games on free TV, said the Lakers need to air about a dozen marquee games per season on free TV to keep the average fan interested.

“If you cut it down to zero, you are hurting the brand,” he said. “I don’t blame the Lakers for making the deal, but they are shortsighted if it doesn’t include some free TV, and teams like that will invariably pay a price.”

Oh, yeah, speaking of price, this deal could be worth as much as $3 billion to the Lakers, and good for them, as it will allow the continued building of championships that can be shared by folks throughout the Los Angeles community.

Well, all but about 1.6 million of them.