NBC and Turner Sports are the NBA's most prominent television partners, but they won't be the ones most affected by the league's lockout.
That distinction belongs to Fox Sports Net, the conglomerate of regional sports networks that holds the local rights to 26 of the 29 NBA teams. Having already lost 141 games because of the lockout, Fox is scrambling to replace its programming.
"The NBA is such an important product, we can't just sit around," said Tracy Dolgin, the chief operating officer of Fox Sports Net. "We have to look at our constituency of viewers, advertisers and cable operators and offer good products to satisfy the sports craving."
FSN has contracted with the NBA to produce at least one classic game a week from the league's archives for each team. It also signed a deal with baseball to air five games from the major-league All-Star series in Japan. If the lockout stretches deeper into the season, FSN may look to broadcast more NHL and college basketball games.
But for a network built around strong local programming, the loss of the winter's highest-rated sport could spell trouble for the network's flagship news program, Fox Sports News. Viewers not watching local NBA games early in the night may be more apt to tune into ESPN's SportsCenter or CNN's Sports Tonight -- or even to no news show at all.
"It obviously doesn't help," Dolgin said. "The concept of the network is based on great lead-ins. That's why we have not sat back. I think baseball will rate well and give a good lead-in."
FSN will not take the short-term financial hit that the NBA's other partners will receive, because unlike NBC and Turner>, Fox pays most of the teams only if games are played. The loss of local cable revenue will cost NBA teams at least $100 million. Turner and NBC are committed to pay their entire $550 million rights fees regardless of how many games are played.
Turner, which is paying $890 million for four years of the NBA, will be repaid in extra games in the final years of the deal. TNT and TBS have lost 16 games because of the lockout. But as general interest networks, they do not necessarily need to find replacement sports for those time slots. Instead, Turner is replacing the NBA with movies and action programming.
"We are making every effort to deliver each of our advertisers alternative inventory that delivers the same demographic as the NBA," Turner Sports spokesman Greg Hughes said. "We expect the programming we have in place to deliver strong numbers."
But Turner and Fox are unable to charge the same price for ads on replacement programming and some advertisers are balking at the move.
"Whatever is lost is lost forever," said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who runs his own consulting firm. "There will be a great temptation not to spend the advertising dollars on other events, especially in a time where the economy is not what it used to be."
NBC will recoup lost games with either a rebate or reduced fees in the final three years of its $1.75 billion, four-year deal. With its first games not coming until Christmas, NBC doesn't need to worry about replacement programming for a few more weeks.
As for long-term damage to the league and its television partners, Pilson says unless the lockout forces the cancellation of the entire season, fans most likely will not harbor resentment.
"I think the public would accept a short lockout without much negative reaction," Pilson said. "If they lose the season, they are looking at the serious problems baseball had to deal with four years ago. I don't think the NBA would be permanently damaged, but there would be a period of reduced sponsorship, television ratings and attendance."
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