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No Basketball, No Billions: Media Preps for NBA Lockout Disaster

While the TV business dodged an NFL stoppage, a timely start to the pro basketball season looks unlikely — and the losses will be in the billions

While broadcasters and advertisers dodged a huge bullet when the NFL solved its labor issues, it doesn't look like they will be as lucky with the NBA.

After another failed day of negotiations between the league and the players' union, the NBA announced this week it would cancel the first two weeks of its upcoming season if no agreement is reached by Oct. 10. The pre-season has already been nixed.

Should the season be postponed — or canceled altogether — the damage will be pretty nasty, costing the surging league, its players, broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors and even small businesses millions, and in some cases, billions of dollars.

That starts with the NBA's two biggest broadcast rights holders, Time Warner's Turner Sports/TNT and Disney's ESPN/ABC, which together are paying $930 million per season through the end of their contracts in 2016.

Various projections say that Turner's TNT, ESPN and ABC could collectively lose out on about $1.25 billion in advertising revenue.

Should the entire season be lost, the league itself will eat that broadcast licensing revenue, as well billions of dollars more in missing income from ticket, merchandising and various other rights sales.

Not to mention that TNT and ESPN especially will have hours of empty programming to fill.

And it gets worse.

Given that NBA TV ratings have grown steadily since 2007 and have reached record highs, the potential damage is "immeasurable,” said Ed O’Hara, senior partner at SME Branding, which has lent its services to most of the major sports leagues.

Also read: Double Jeopardy: TV Faces the Abyss with NFL and NBA Player Lockouts

Consider that the league's own NBA TV — a cable and internet broadcasting play for which Turner sells ads — would lose about $50 million in revenue.

Then there are the regional sports cable channels, which are perhaps the most undersung element to the pro sports revenue pie. 

Even in 2009, a recessionary year for the media business, revenue for regional sports networks as a whole grew 6.6 percent to $4.6 billion, according to SNL Kagan. Total revenue from pro basketall is hard find in the form of a broken-out figure — but suffice it to say the NBA has value on these channels.

Fox Sports West, for example, will pay the Los Angeles Lakers $30 million this year for the rights to air the team's home games, should they actually play them. This seems to understate the worth of the ad time, given that Time Warner just signed a new successor deal with the team that's going to pay it $150 million a year starting next season.

Also read: Ratings: TNT's NBA East Finals Coverage Beats Big Three Networks' Averages

Meanwhile, from Nike to Gatorade, the NBA's sponsors face an almost incalculable loss of brand exposure. 

“Most clients, when they buy NBA games are buying it because they want NBA games not because they want poker, not because they want hockey, not because they want anything else,” said Jason Maltby, Director of National broadcast TV at Mindshare, a major media and marketing company.

“They’ve made an investment into these leagues, these teams, these venues,” O’Hara added. “It’s not pretty. They have to plan their promotions, their retail response their packaging well in advance of when it ever hits the shelf."

While advertisers have to find new outlets to expose their brands, the league's TV partners are scrambling to fill empty time slots.

In terms of filling the programming void left by an NBA lockout, ESPN would seem to have the biggest challenge. Not only will it have to fill the time-periods of missing game coverage, but key programming components such as "Sports Center" could be hit hard. 

Starting in January, when the NFL begins to wind down, NBA highlights and analysis are coverage pillars for ESPN's flagship news show. And unlike that lockout that crippled the NBA back in 1998-99, ESPN does not have a National Hockey League contract to fall back on.

ESPN declined to comment on the matter.

TNT, meanwhile, has deftly filled its primetime hours with original series. But with the bulk of those original dramas airing in the summer, something will have to be moved for the network to fill the Tuesday and Thursday-night primetime hours vacated this winter by pro basketball.

"We are hopeful that a favorable resolution is reached for both sides and for an outcome that gets players on the court to start the 2011-12 season," a Turner statement read. "We are certainly making contingency plans for TNT but, at this point, we are not going to speculate about the potential impact to the start of the season."

Also read: No Kobe, No Problem, TV Buyers Say – LeBron Will Carry NBA Finals Ratings

Moreover, TNT — which uses basketball to broaden the older- and female-skewing viewership of its original series — would have a tough time drawing coveted younger males. 

"TNT is trying to really build a broader platform now for sports," said John Rowady, President of rEvolution, a sports marketing firm based in Chicago. "It's not like it wont hurt ESPN, but they have ways to keep advertisers happy within the sports demographic."

And while the larger networks would suffer far more if the lockout led to the playoffs being cancelled, it is the regionals that may suffer most during the regular season. Not only do they have more programming to replace by virtue of broadcasting a team’s entire schedule, but they also cannot replace that sports programming as easily as a national network.

So, with so much money at stake, why don't NBA players and owners just make a deal already?

Few experts see much chance of a deal coming together by next week, and with many foretelling weeks or months of missed games — if not an entire season — top NBA players like Kobe Bryant are talking to overseas pro teams about temporary gigs. 

Led by acerbic commissioner David Stern (right), league owners claim that 22 of the NBA's 30 teams lose money, with that red ink totaling about $300 million.

The owners want to reduce the players' current share of 57 percent of all "basketball-related income" to under 50 percent. To do that, they'd impose what's called a "hard" salary cap, which would replace the current "soft" cap that lets richer teams exceed the salary limit with a dollar-per-dollar luxury tax.  

The players, of course, don't want that to happen — under the direction of player representative Derek Fisher, a feisty five-time world-champion Lakers point guard, they're telling owners to dramatically increase their level of revenue sharing beyond the current mark of $50 million.

In short, the profitable big market teams like the Lakers, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls would subsidize smaller market clubs like the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets.

Certainly, it's a lot to agree on — and a much bigger chasm than the one that drove National Football League players and owners into federal court over the spring and summer.

And it's not the first time in recent history NBA players have been locked out — labor unrest in 1998-99 pushed the season to a February start date and truncated the regular season from 82 to 50 games.

But this is a very different situation from the NBA's last lockout, when the league was reeling from the retirement of Michael Jordan. Now, the league isn't just squandering billions of dollars — it's blowing growth momentum.

"It's worse in the sense that there is just a lot more money at stake," Rowady said.

According to Kantar Media, TNT and ESPN/ABC took in $417.7 million in ad revenue just from the 2009-10 postseason alone. That two-month campaign culminated in a compelling seven-game championship series between the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics. Cost for one 30-second commercial on ABC: $402,000.

In an ominous sign, NBA owners have sought counsel from their NHL brethren, who told them the sacrifice of the 2004-05 pro hockey season was worth it in the long term.

That, of course, is open for debate, with NHL ratings cratering in the wake of that work stoppage and only now beginning to recover. 

“It will take years [to recover]," O'Hara said. "If they go to a [shortened] 50-game season, that’s a consolation prize. It will take years to recover from that."

So just how much, in total, do the league and its partners stand to lose?

“From a mathematical standpoint it’s hard to say … There’s no historical precedent,” Maltby said. “It’s really more of an intuitive feel that when you have momentum you build it, you always try to not stop and kill it through something.”