The NBA has released its schedule of games for the upcoming 2014-15 season, an announcement inextricably linked to the major television networks that have obtained the rights to televise the games.
Disney-owned networks ABC and ESPN, Turner Broadcasting’s TNT and the league’s own NBA TV (operated by Turner) each own rights to broadcast NBA games on the national level.
A major change in the NBA this year was the shift in focus from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who assembled a Big Three superstar squad around LeBron James as quickly as they lost him four years ago. James joins 2014 All-Star MVP point guard Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, and Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love is expected to be traded in a deal that would bring #1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota.
James’ $42 million contract with Cleveland was signed for only two years, a move yet again linked to the NBA’s television rights contract with Disney and Turner Broadcasting. That multi-year rights deal is scheduled to expire after the 2015-16 season, and the Wall Street Journal estimates the league could double its revenue in new negotiations. The new deal would also lead to an increased salary cap for teams, which is why James and other players are smart to hold off until a significant increase in money is floating around the NBA.
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Although Cleveland will likely be a strong ratings draw throughout the season, the team has only garnered 29 national TV appearances in the upcoming schedule.
The team that will be most televised on national TV — the Los Angeles Clippers with 32 games — also signifies an unexpected shift in NBA programming. The Clippers have long played second fiddle to the Lakers in their home city, but the addition of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (as well as new owner Steve Ballmer’s replacement of Donald Sterling) has turned the tide in Los Angeles.
The Lakers still amassed a close 28 appearances on national TV, including the late game on Oct. 28, the league’s opening night, when the team will take on the Houston Rockets at home. That game will follow the San Antonio Spurs’ championship banner ceremony and game against the Dallas Mavericks on TNT.
Another team the national networks are counting on is the Chicago Bulls, who appear poised to make a run in the Eastern Conference after making some moves that brought former Lakers big man Pau Gasol to the team as well as rookie shooter Doug McDermott and Real Madrid superstar Nikola Mirotic. Of course, much of the Bulls success hinges on the health of Derrick Rose, who has returned again after two consecutive seasons of devastating injuries.
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While ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBATV scooped up several of the league's best match-ups, rights to the remaining regular season games have been distributed amongst networks in various local markets. Although each team is responsible for its own deals in local markets, the airing of some games may soon be impacted by proposed government intervention.
The FCC is planning a vote that, if successful, would remove the sports broadcasting blackout rule that has been in place for 40 years. The rule varies according to each specific sports league, but generally states that games can be blacked out on local, over-the-air broadcast networks if games do not sell out. The blackout can also be applied to cable and satellite providers if a game is being broadcasted in a local market. The rule was established in order to ensure that free broadcasts of games did not impact ticket sales for local customers.
In terms of the NBA, most teams will not be impacted in a significant manner. Many teams, such as the aforementioned Los Angeles Clippers, have deals with regional sports networks rather than broadcast TV networks (a practice most common in the NFL). The Clippers’ deal with Fox Prime Ticket, also scheduled to expire in 2016, is likely to give the team a huge boost in revenue after new negotiations are made.
Although the upcoming NBA season is filled with exciting new teams and story-lines, it’s somewhat disheartening that fans’ ability to access games is limited by extravagant rights deals that are only expected to increase. The FCC's removal of the sports broadcasting blackout rule could only further limit free, over-the-air access to games, moving the programming further into the realm of pay-TV. This negatively impacts individuals who cannot afford cable or do not want to pay for it, a concept that (in cable TV's early days), once seemed outrageous. Yet as the evolution of TV distribution has demonstrated, money usually trumps public interest.