Larry Bird and Magic Johnson took the NBA from tape delay to prime time. Michael Jordan is now leading the league into the television sports stratosphere.
The NBA is poised to make more than $2 billion in its new television deal. That is double the revenue from its current contract with NBC and Turner Sports, which expires at the end of this season, and nearly eight times as much as it made during the prime of Johnson and Bird.The NBA, whose championship was televised on tape delay as recently as 1980, is now the second most sought after television sports franchise, trailing only the NFL.
"You can count on what the NBA will deliver," said Ron Frederick, a media buyer at J. Walter Thompson. "That's why it is so attractive to networks, because it gives advertisers access to young male viewers that aren't as easily accessible in prime time."
That is especially true in June, when the NBA Finals are played. Networks are showing mostly repeats and ratings are traditionally low, making the NBA even more attractive.
Even Jordan's retirement is not scaring off the bidders, despite the fact that ratings fell during his brief attempt at a baseball career.
"I don't believe there will be a precipitous fall in ratings because of one or two individuals," said Kevin O'Malley, head of programming at TNT. "You can't make television deals for billions of dollars based on one player."
Industry sources said that NBC has already offered to pay $1.5 billion over four years, double its current contract. NBC spokesman Ed Markey denies that an offer has been made.
"We're talking," Markey said, "but that's all that is going on at this point."
Industry analysts have speculated that Turner, which pays $350 million over four years, will also double its contract.
"I think NBC and Turner are going to move heaven and earth to renew their agreements and prevent any dilution of the package with another package or lose the negotiating position they have," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now the head of a sports consulting firm in New York.