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NBA in prime position to make a run at lucrative TV contract


Once upon a not-so-distant time, NBA championship series games aired on tape delay, the league was riddled by rumors of rampant drug abuse and, to borrow a marketing phrase, things weren't so fantastic.

Not so anymore, and no place does the rebound show up better than in the NBA's television situation, which is peaking at just the right time: when talks for a new contract are on the horizon.

The league's current $1.1 billion contracts with NBC and Turner Sports expire after next season and the list of potential suitors when discussions begin later this year is a mile long and they're all bringing lots of cash.

And why not? All of the news associated with the NBA, outside of, say, Dennis Rodman, is great. Sunday night's All-Star Game, for example, got a 12.7 national overnight Nielsen rating, down slightly from the 12.9 for the 1996 game, but still a healthier number than the 9.1 the Pro Bowl got for ABC the week before.

That's not to say that the NBA's weekly ratings are even close to those of the NFL's, nor that the new basketball contract will approach the numbers that football will garner. But it's clear that the NBA has positioned itself to challenge baseball as a second banana to the NFL among sports fans and that television is paying attention and will pay at least 20 percent more in fees.

All of the other broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and Fox -- are believed to want some piece of the NBA, and ESPN is likely to make a run at whatever cable package the league arranges, leaving commissioner David Stern with some juicy options.

The early betting line is that Stern's friendship with NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol should translate into a continued relationship. After all, NBC has carried some serious water for the league, including creating "Inside Stuff," moving the Finals into prime time and carrying the new women's NBA this summer.

NBC's price, however, will go up, if for no other reason than the fact that everyone else wants the NBA. In fact, rumors are rife that Fox is willing to give up a night of prime time, say Monday, for an NBA game of the week, but CBS and ABC, which previously carried the league, are interested as well, though probably not in prime time.

Stern will probably have to decide whether to add a second broadcast network with NBC, which would significantly boost the league's take, but likely dilute its ratings, not to mention complicate how to divide such a package.

After all, the NBA, like the NFL and baseball, is split into conferences, but their identities are not as pronounced as they are in the other sports, and with most of the bigger names in the NBA currently playing in the East, a la Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, the conferences would have to be rotated between the networks. But that's a problem Stern will deal with as he's laughing all the way to the bank.

A new game plan

Fox yesterday unveiled its 1997 baseball schedule, which features at least seven appearances by the Orioles over an 18-week span.

The Orioles will play host to the Cleveland Indians on May 31, the first week of Fox's second season of Saturday afternoon baseball telecasts, then meet the White Sox in Chicago the following week and the Atlanta Braves on June 14.

The network will again telecast four games each Saturday regionally, as well as July's All-Star Game, some Division Series games and the American League Championship Series in the fall.

As you might expect, the New York Yankees will make eight Fox appearances, as well as the Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins. The Braves, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals will get seven Fox games.

ESPY winners


Breakthrough athlete -- Tiger Woods, golf. Comeback athlete -- Evander Holyfield, boxing. Female athlete -- Amy Van Dyken, Olympic swimming. Male athlete -- Michael Johnson, Olympic track and field. Performance under pressure -- Kerri Strug, Olympic gymnastics. Coach-manager -- Joe Torre, Yankees. Team -- Yankees.

Performers of Year

Major-league baseball Ken Caminiti, Padres. NFL -- Brett Favre, Packers. NBA -- Michael Jordan, Bulls. NHL Joe Sakic, Avalanche. NCAA Division I football -- Danny Wuerffel, Florida. NCAA Division I men's basketball -- Tim Duncan, Wake Forest. NCAA Division I women's basketball -- Saudia Roundtree, Georgia. Men's golf -- Mark Brooks; Tom Lehman. Women's golf -- Karrie Webb. Men's tennis -- Pete Sampras. Women's tennis -- Steffi Graf. Auto racing -- Jimmy Vasser, CART. Men's track -- Michael Johnson. Women's track -- Marie-Jose Perec. Boxing -- Evander Holyfield. Jockey -- Jerry Bailey. Men's bowling -- Bob Learn Jr.

Plays of year

NHL -- Red Wings' Steve Yzerman's overtime playoff goal. College basketball -- Tulane's Jerald Honeycutt's falling out-of-bounds game-winner. NBA -- Suns' Michael Finley steals and scores in midair. Baseball -- Caminiti's backhand grab and throw to first. College football -- Memphis' Kevin Cobb doesn't fall, scoring on a kickoff. NFL -- Howard's Super Bowl kickoff return. Showstopper -- LSU's Warren Morris wins College World Series with ninth-inning homer. Dramatic individual performance -- Holyfield beats Mike Tyson for heavyweight title. Outrageous play -- Michigan's Mike Legg scores remarkable goal from behind net. Game -- Ohio State edges Arizona State in Rose Bowl.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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