The Critical 'I'

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

IS DISNEY SCREWING THE NBA?
gettin' fouled
During Michael Jordan's heyday as the NBA's marquee player, you never could have imagined the league getting trumped by something as provincial as stock car racing. But in the LeBron James era, the unimaginable becomes reality: This past weekend's Subway 400 NASCAR race on FOX attracted twice as many national viewers as ABC's competing Cleveland-New York NBA game that featured James' first visit to Madison Square Garden.

There are a lot of ways to spin this in the NBA's favor: There are so many regular season games on that even a weekend network game isn't that big a draw; the Cavs and Knicks aren't playing very well this year; there's not a whole lot of overlap between the NBA's and NASCAR's fanbases. You could also blame the NBA in the sense that it doesn't have a Jordan-like player to pull in the viewers no matter what.

I think, though, that it's time to start pointing the finger at a more likely culprit: Disney, who through its ABC and ESPN networks is the NBA's main television partner.

Disney won the broadcast rights to the NBA two years ago, after the league had a lucrative run on NBC and Time Warner's TNT. It seemed like a match made in heaven: The NBA appealed to the youngest and hippest viewers, and Disney owned the gold standard in sports programming in ESPN and ABC Sports.

Yet look at what the results were during last year's NBA Finals, at the end of the first year of the new partnership (in a post I cheekily entitled "ABC Feeling Screwed By The NBA"):

ABC, which is in the first year of its valued NBA contract, is so disappointed in the lousy numbers that it's hoping for a forced Game 7 in order to dump off its advertising commitments as painlessly as possible...

As an NHL fan, I feel better about my sport in light of this. Let's see, the NHL ratings have been sucking for the entire five-year run of that league's broadcasting agreement. Then, the first year the NBA gets on board the Mouse networks, their ratings slide. So it wasn't the NHL's fault for those cruddy ratings, it was Disney's!

I was joking around when I wrote this, because I, and probably most observers, figured the weak ratings were an abberation, and the NBA numbers would rebound the next season. Now? With NASCAR beating the daylights out of the once-mighty hoops? I'm not so sure I didn't hit on the truth back in June.

It would follow that Disney is dropping the ball here. They've been mishandling ABC's non-sports programming for years now, to the point where shareholders have lost patience in the company's continued ownership of the network (indeed, it's a key reason for the recent attempts to oust Michael Eisner). If this bungling has seeped into the formerly rock-solid sports operations, it really casts an ominous shadow on the House of the Mouse. While, ultimately, the product on the court has to deliver compelling-enough entertainment, it's Disney's job to sell the sizzle through its promotion and marketing. The ratings strongly suggest that they're not doing that.

Maybe they got lazy from the reliable success of their NFL broadcasts (although the venerable Monday Night Football also has seen an erosion of viewership in recent years). The NFL sells itself, though, so it's had to screw that up.