Boston broadcasters coping with NBA lockout


The Boston Globe published a snapshot of what local broadcasters are doing to cope with the loss of lucrative NBA games. Right now they’re doing their best to replace the canceled games with old Boston Celtics contests. “The NBA lockout could be a blowout loss for television and radio stations that carry the Boston Celtics, driving away hundreds of thousands of viewers and lucrative ad revenues,” noted the story.

Comcast SportsNet in Boston, a regional cable channel, is dealing with a month’s worth of games canceled so far this season due to the lockout. Every canceled game is a big loss. For example, 149,000 viewers tuned into SportsNet for the game between the Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks on 11/3/10, according to Nielsen ratings. Now, on the most comparable night this year – 11/2, when the Celtics were scheduled to play the Cleveland Cavaliers – SportsNet drew only 9,400 viewers.

SportsNet is running old Celtics contests with commentary from NBA personalities like Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

Stations are playing a high-stakes waiting game as the league and the players union fight over how to split billions in revenue. This early, there has not been much economic damage, since the high ratings and advertising dollars generated by NBA games tend to build through the season and peak during the playoffs.

But if talks fail to produce an agreement, the entire season will be threatened, and stations could lose the ad revenue that comes with extra viewers who tune into live NBA broadcasts.

But it’s not all bad news…yet: “Despite the loss of Celtics games, which is admittedly painful, we are prepared to more than weather the storm,’’ SportsNet GM Bill Bridgen told the paper, adding that the channel has so far not lost any advertisers during the lockout.

But replacement programming is a poor substitute for the actual Celtics, who tend to dominate the local ratings on radio and television. “It’s not something that will be a complete solution for us economically,’’ said Bridgen.

A 30-second spot during a Celtics game on SportsNet can cost from $2,500 to $4,000. A spot on an off night will command only hundreds of dollars, according to a Boston ad agency exec off the record.

Bridgen said he has been converting advertisers such as Nissan Motor Co., which bought ads during canceled Celtics games, to other shows on his network’s schedule.

But, “advertisers won’t be satisfied until the Celtics are back on air,’’ he said. “We are hoping that will happen sooner than later.’’

At Entercom’s WEEI Sports Network Boston franchise, which has carried the Celtics since 2005, VP/Programming Jason Wolfe said the station is having sports talker Mike Adams run longer on what would have been Celtics game nights.

The lockout is “very unfortunate,’’ Wolfe said in an e-mail. “Certainly, we would prefer to be broadcasting the games because the team is still extremely competitive, and we know there’d be a tremendous audience for them.’’

Wolfe is hoping to recapture some local basketball fans with the start of the Boston College basketball season 11/14, but he worries about the long-term impact on the sport itself if the lockout continues.

“As we saw with hockey when its season was lost in 2004, it took a long time for the game to recover,’’ he said, “and I think the same thing will happen with basketball if this season winds up being canceled.’’

Hearst’s WCVB-TV (ABC) also airs some NBA games via ABC, and is scheduled to carry the Chicago Bulls vs. the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day. If the season is canceled, the station will air other sports or entertainment programming.

Meanwhile, representatives for the NBA and players’ union met again on 11/10 in an effort to salvage what remains of an already-shortened season. After negotiating for nearly 11 hours, the sides were unable to produce a settlement for a collective bargaining agreement, but the NBA presented a proposal to the players that, if approved by next week, would possibly result in a 72-game season that would begin on 12/15.

NBA Commissioner David Stern refused to refer to the proposal as the league’s “last best offer,” but intimated that it was the case after conferencing with members of the owners’ labor relations committee.

“There comes a time when you have to be through negotiating and we are. We have done everything possible that was possible to do,” Stern said. “There is nothing left to negotiate about.”

Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter, the president and executive director, respectively, of National Basketball Players Association, said they will have player reps from the 30 teams to convene in New York on Monday or Tuesday to review the latest offer and come back to the NBA with a decision.

RBR-TVBR observation: We’d pretty much say if a deal isn’t struck and the 72-game season NBA proposal that would begin on 12/15 isn’t shored up soon, advertisers will start to bail en masse. Sure, some will be offered substitute placement and make-goods, but the season’s last chance is coming upon broadcasters and advertisers quickly. If it fails, the sour taste will be in advertisers’ and fans’ collective mouths and will definitely affect next season, if a deal is ever reached. Also, there can be no 2012 NBA draft without a collective bargaining agreement in place. Who will blink first?