On this day ten years ago, the NBA signed a television deal that would come to fundamentally change the face of sports television.
On January 22, 2002, the NBA officially announced a six-year television deal with Disney’s ESPN and ABC and Time Warner’s TNT through the 2007-08 season. The deal ended the league’s run with General Electric’s NBC and set in motion the trend of big time professional sports moving primarily to cable television.
The deal, which had been rumored for weeks, reduced the NBA’s exposure on broadcast from over 60 annual regular season and playoff telecasts on NBC to fewer than 30 on ABC. Marquee events such as the NBA All-Star Game and the bulk of the Conference Finals would move to cable.
Not only were the days of frequent double and tripleheaders on broadcast over, but even the days of games in consecutive weeks. During the first few seasons, ABC’s schedule was so erratic that there occasionally several weeks between telecasts. In 2003, the network aired a game on January 4 and did not resume coverage until February 16.
In those first few years, the deal appeared to be a disaster. Ratings, which had been declining since David Stern and the owners locked out the players in 1998, fell off a cliff. The first season on ABC included the lowest rated regular season ever on broadcast (2.6), and worse, the lowest rated NBA Finals ever (6.5). Regular season ratings dropped again the next season (2.4) and kept declining until hitting a record low 2.0 in 2006-07. During the first seven years of the NBA’s partnership with ESPN/ABC, the NBA Finals averaged a single-digit rating six times, bottoming out at a 6.2 in 2007. By comparison, NBC never dipped below a 10.0 average in twelve-years covering the league.
As time went on, however, the NBA and Stern were vindicated. Though the NBA was alone in the wilderness when jumping to cable in 2002, several other sports made the move in subsequent years. Starting in the 2006-07 season, Monday Night Football moved from longtime home ABC to corporate sibling ESPN. Also in 2007, the entire Major League Baseball Division Series and one League Championship Series moved to TBS. In 2011, ESPN began airing the entire Bowl Championship Series. Four years from now, TBS will begin televising the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four in every other year.
In 2002, the NBA appeared to be moving backwards, accepting its status as a niche league waning in popularity. In 2012, the NBA looks like a visionary, reading the writing on the wall for broadcast television and firmly establishing itself on cable before any of its competitors.
Of course, every event that has moved from broadcast to cable has suffered mightily. In 2007 and 2011, the NLCS on TBS averaged less than 3% of U.S. TV homes, astoundingly low numbers for that event. The six Monday Night Football seasons on ESPN have been the lowest rated in the history of the program. Average ratings for the Bowl Championship Series on ESPN were the lowest ever in 2012, marred by the lowest rated Rose Bowl in history, the lowest rated Sugar Bowl in eighteen years, and the lowest rated Orange Bowl in nineteen years. Still, the trend toward cable continues unabated.
The deal has also proven successful for cable networks TNT and ESPN. During the 2010-11 NBA season, TNT aired the most-viewed NBA regular season and playoff games ever on cable and had the most-viewed NBA regular season and postseason in cable history. The ten most-viewed NBA games ever on cable have all taken place since the 2002 deal — and nine of the ten were games that would have aired on NBC during the 1998-02 deal.
Ratings have bounced back in recent years on broadcast. ABC averaged a 3.0 rating for NBA games during the 2010-11 season, higher than NBC’s average in the 2001-02 season (2.7), and the past two NBA Finals on ABC have each averaged at least 10% of U.S. TV homes. The NBA regular season on ABC has outrated Major League Baseball on FOX in each of the past four years, and the NBA Finals has drawn a higher rating and more viewers than the World Series in three of the past four years.
NBC briefly suffered after losing the NBA. From June 13, 2002 to January 14, 2006, the network did not air a single game from any of the four major sports — a nearly four-year run of futility where the network’s biggest weekly events were smattering of NASCAR races during the weakest portion of the sport’s schedule and the Arena Football League. “Walking away from the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball [in 2000] is the sign of a first-place network confident of its direction and in its non-sports programming,” a negotiator for ad agency Campbell-Mithun said shortly after the deal was done (Mediaweek, 2/4/02). In the years since, NBC has plummeted into last place among the big four networks in primetime.
Though ESPN and ABC have never been able to come even close to the quality of telecast NBC offered during its twelve-year tenure, it appears clear with ten years’ distance that the NBA’s gamble has paid off. A television deal that was once indicative of dysfunction and decline now looks wise and pragmatic.