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The NBA on NBC partnership modified sports media and crowned the NBA

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NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBC’s Dick Ebersol worked together to greatly expand the league’s coverage.ap images

“A spectacular move!”

Sports fans know the clip — Michael Jordan switching hands in mid-air to attain; the decision from the legendary Marv Albert. But we’re writing about one other, similarly spectacular move made by the NBA and NBC on Nov. 9, 1989:

NBC stunned the industry 33 years ago by paying the NBA $600 million-plus, greater than triple what incumbent CBS had been paying, putting the NBA on the map, cementing the visionary reputations of NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol as sports impresarios, and birthing a really unique league/network “marriage” that netted (pun intended) an enormous “win-win.” It represented a pivotal moment in our careers, and reordered sports media, transforming the NBA.

First, the context: Ed joined the NBA in 1982 as its director of broadcasting/executive producer; John began at CBS Sports as programming assistant. That season, CBS scheduled only five regular-season NBA games — each involving the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers. Until 1982, weeknight NBA Finals were on CBS late-night tape-delay, so concerned was CBS to not air NBA games in prime time throughout the crucial “May Sweeps.” The NBA was a programming stepchild. “Our fans like us,” Stern once mused to John, “but they don’t like themselves for liking us!”

The NBA began to rally in its final years with CBS, as Ted Shaker took over as executive producer, adding innovations like “On the Half with Pat O’Brien” and slicker productions that highlighted the various emerging NBA superstars, like Jordan. Just after 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 7, 1989, Jordan electrified the nation, hitting the hanging, series-deciding, buzzer-beater over the Cavs’ Craig Ehlo within the opening round of the playoffs. We took note.

We were now working together on the NBA. CBS itself shocked the industry (and us) by paying $1.1 billion to remove NBC’s 41-year MLB national TV “birthright,” providing NBC with airtime and motivation, and us a chance.  

The rise of Michael Jordan, shown here after winning the 1991 title, further added buzz across the NBA and NBC’s coverage.getty images

With the NBA’s TV agreements expiring, we got down to NFL-ize the NBA in order that it could turn into the premium network sports property after football season. Somewhat than accept a network-centric latest agreement, we drafted our own form, specifying key required elements — “the stuff.” We wanted weekly Sunday doubleheaders, “major sports” level of production equipment and an actual pregame show “in a studio,” not in front of a wall of monitors or a brief set within the stands, as CBS had resorted to for budgetary reasons. And we wanted substantial on-air promotion, and cross-promotion between network and cable partners, to expand audience awareness of the NBA. “We willingly promoted games that were airing on Turner Sports, regardless that it was unheard of on the time,” Ebersol notes in his latest book. Our goal made it very hard to stick with CBS, which had the NCAA Tournament, PGA Tour, and now MLB. And, perhaps most significantly, CBS didn’t see the NBA as we … or Dick Ebersol did.  

“Inside 48 hours of once I began the job at NBC Sports, I went to … meet with David. We hit it off from that time,” Ebersol recalled recently. “Prime time was what we were selling — not only for the Finals or later rounds of the playoffs, but finding ways of getting Sundays into prime time.” After all, Ebersol and Stern recognized the Jordan/Ehlo effect too.  

Ebersol is on the Mount Rushmore pantheon of sports legends, along together with his mentor, Roone Arledge, and Stern. What distinguished Ebersol and Stern was that not only did they think big — they did big. That summer, Ebersol (who ultimately served as NBC’s chief executive, programmer, and executive producer for the NBA on NBC) traveled to D.C. to fulfill with FCC reps — the subject: Could a sports program that contained educational content qualify for the mandated Saturday morning Network TV kids block? The reply wasn’t “no.” Ebersol’s legwork begat “NBA Inside Stuff,” a weekly program produced by NBA Entertainment that ran midday on NBC just prior to live sports every Saturday for 12 years, indoctrinating generations of young adults to the NBA.

So strong was the partnership between Ebersol and Stern, and their respective standings so high with their employers, that Albert’s trademark “Yes!” became the default response when the league or network asked something of the opposite. As Ebersol said in his book, “the partner at all times got here first.”

Links to NBC / NBA video clips:

John “Tesh Roundball Rock”
NBC’s signoff (all the good moments)
An “NBA Showtime” pregame show from the primary season

In a novel move, NBC provided the NBA with a $10 million/12 months bank of prime-time promotion, which led to the “I Love This Game” campaign. A dozen-plus executives, production people, marketers and ad sellers from either side gathered weekly for lunch, forged relationships and created great value together. They were afraid to not because Ebersol and Stern made cooperation and success an imperative. “Meetings like that had never happened before in any partnership between a league and network,” Ebersol said. The evocative “joint logo” was emblematic of the parties’ collaborative, integrated spirit.  

One star was Jim Burnette, head of NBC Sports sales. Burnette knew the NBA was particularly strong within the second quarter, which was heavy auto sales season. He boldly expanded CBS’s previous two NBA-exclusive auto advertisers to eight, each getting one-quarter of exclusivity and 4 units every other game. And he moved fast. On the 1990 Super Bowl, Burnette successfully made the pitch, getting seven autos (including GM, which bought two eighths). He also lined up McDonald’s because the halftime sponsor, locking in revenue of lots of of thousands and thousands in only a few months. Shortly thereafter, the economy collapsed. CBS’s first World Series was a competitive and financial bust (a four-game Reds sweep). However the NBA on NBC was already on a solid financial launchpad.

Two years later, when the NBA and NBC prolonged their already hugely successful agreement early, the parties added an ad revenue share. That heralded an unprecedented amount of information-sharing and created a practically unheard of fertile environment, where the league was actively searching for advertisers for its network partners and vice versa.  

Eight years after the NBA on CBS had scheduled a five-game regular-season slate, NBC aired 26 games featuring 14 teams. Now there was a legitimate pregame show, “NBA Showtime,” superbly hosted by Bob Costas, and the doubleheader games voiced by play-by-play legends Albert and Dick Enberg. The sidelines were patrolled by Ahmad Rashad, who initially bristled at Albert’s tag, “The Dean of Sideline Reporters,” until he realized that fans liked it. The primary NBC analyst, Mike Fratello, was similarly dubbed, “The Czar of the Telestrator.” John Tesh wrote the rating, “Roundball Rock.” It was a show, and it was fun.  

Whereas CBS was often plagued with local station preemptions, Ebersol had NBC affiliate relations offer the NBA schedule as an “all or nothing” block. The stations had little alternative and the NBA had 99%-plus distribution. This helped rankings, as did Ebersol’s understanding of Nielsen. By forgoing a pre-tip break, Nielsen would start the national rating during live motion, and the closer the last spot ran to the top of the sport, the upper the sport’s average. In its first season, NBC was also rewarded with a dream Chicago-L.A. Lakers final, an actual changing of the guard from Magic to Michael, and a rankings hit.

NBC offered the prime-time exposure, and shoulder programming, the NBA needed to spice up fandom. getty images

In late April 1992, the Rodney King riots gripped L.A., scrambling the playoff schedule. Working along with the NBA’s longtime schedule maker Matt Winick, we imagined a chance. With three games on Sunday, May 9, but only a doubleheader booked for NBC, what if … we could persuade NBC to go at 12:30, 3:00 and 5:30 p.m. ET — the primary NBA network tripleheader, climaxing with a must-watch game: the champion Bulls with Jordan on the Knicks with Patrick Ewing and coach Pat Riley. Going nearly unopposed 5:30-8 p.m. ET on Sunday wasn’t possible at CBS (“60 Minutes” was untouchable). But we got to “Yes!” quickly, also by borrowing one other NFL innovation: offering the local NBC stations a halftime news break to make up for the news preemption. That night, the Knicks shocked the Bulls, providing a strong NBC prime-time lead-in throughout the May sweeps. From then on, tripleheaders and the late Sunday window became the norm for the NBA on NBC, many distinguished by remarkable performances from Jordan.

Stern taught us to know and strategically use our “assets.” The 1992 Olympics Dream Team is a fantastic example. The USA team needed to qualify for Barcelona. The NBA and NBC staged and marketed their “Beatles-like” Dream Team debut. On the Olympics, Ebersol opened prime time with Dream Team games, introducing huge audiences to stars like Karl Malone, David Robinson and Charles Barkley — not to say Larry Bird, Magic and Jordan, fascinating the world and catapulting the NBA to a fair higher orbit.

“I miss David daily of my life. He was a … stimulator in my life and a fantastic, loyal friend,” said Ebersol last month. Stern would have said the identical, especially if the NBA retained the 5:30-8 p.m. ET time slot and a share of ad revenue!

Today, Ed Desser (www.desser.television) and John Kosner (www.kosnermedia.com) each operate sports media consulting businesses. They collectively served three many years because the senior media executives on the NBA, collaborating throughout the heyday of the NBA on NBC.

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