Will new NBA be able to court viewers?


So, the NBA is back and commissioner David Stern has saved the house of professional basketball. But did he and the players burn the village in the process, and will the new product be worth watching once things get up and running?

That's the multimillion-dollar question left from the end of the lockout yesterday. The NBA, as much as any sports organization, has come to depend on television to mold its image. A prolonged period of games with out-of-shape, poorly conditioned players will hurt the NBA's television image, assuming, of course, that viewers even want to watch.

Of course, from a television standpoint, there are numerous other questions left to resolve, like when will the games be televised.

No one from Turner or NBC had any answers yesterday, but the betting within the industry is that a game involving one or more of the league's marquee teams, say, on the order of the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers, will air in prime time on NBC on Feb. 8, the original scheduled night of the All-Star Game.

No matter when the season begins, it's fairly certain that it will end right around the time it usually does, in late June, because NBC has no interest in having the campaign extend into July, when viewing levels drop dramatically.

It should be noted that the oft-forgotten CNN/SI broke the news of yesterday's settlement nearly a half-hour before ESPN or any other competitor.


Let the record reflect that 10 minutes into "Fox Sports News" Tuesday night, the phrase "from way downtown -- bang!" returned to the airwaves for the first time in a long time and it felt as good to the listener as it was for the man who said it. Thirteen minutes later, a hockey player put "the biscuit in the basket," and that felt good, too.

Yes, Keith Olbermann is back doing highlights on a nightly sports news show, and our long national nightmare is over.

Olbermann, the sportscasting wiseacre who left ESPN for MSNBC, only to find that he didn't like doing news about naughty presidents, returned to familiar territory the other night.

And while there were the predictable stumbles and bumbles along the way, Olbermann looked entirely within his element, joshing about his time away from sports, both with co-anchor Kevin Frazier and NBA commissioner David Stern.

Olbermann's presence -- reportedly worth $1 million a year -- is expected to give Fox's relatively nascent cable operation important visibility, but also to bring a sense of stability.

And the Fox folks are milking Olbermann for all he's worth, with a series of promotional ads touting his arrival, as well as snazzy, new graphics and music for the revamped show.

But from this perspective, there's still some work to do to bring "Fox Sports News" into range with "SportsCenter" or with CNN/SI, mostly in areas of substance.

For example, Fox's anchor and reporting staff, personified by the cartoonish Van Earl Wright, are relative lightweights compared with what you'll find on CNN/SI or ESPN. And, on Tuesday, while Fox did have extensive chats with new baseball Hall of Fame inductees Nolan Ryan and George Brett, nary a word was heard from fellow inductee Robin Yount.

Vinny, vidi, vici

Baltimoreans are justified if they're a little puzzled about the guy who will quarterback the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.

Sure, he looks like the same Vinny Testaverde who led the Ravens for their first two seasons, but this Vinny doesn't make critical mistakes and is coolly efficient.

"I was waiting very early on for those six [interception games], but when you get good receivers and time to throw, that doesn't happen," said CBS pre-game analyst Brent Jones.

And why doesn't it happen in New York the way it used to happen in Baltimore and Cleveland and Tampa Bay, Testaverde's previous stops? According to Jones and his CBS colleagues, play-by-play man Greg Gumbel and game analyst Randy Cross, all Testaverde needed was a solid system around him.

"Vinny knows what he's supposed to do," said Cross, who will call Sunday's Jets-Jacksonville Jaguars game. "We, in the business, assume that a quarterback knows what he should do. Vinny has a very structured idea of what he's supposed to do when he throws the ball. That hasn't always been the case."

For the record, Cross credited New York coach Bill Parcells and his assistant coaches for helping Testaverde to his dream season. And in case you didn't get the message that it wasn't always Testaverde's fault, Gumbel provided the punctuation.

"Wonderful things can happen when you surround him with better football players. Better surroundings and better coaching can bring out the best in a player," Gumbel said.

Well, all righty then. We'll hear more from Jones and Cross about the Ravens' future as well as preview the AFC playoffs this weekend in this space tomorrow.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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