Superstar Michael Jordan's return to the National Basketball Association may be a mixed blessing for Turner Sports.
Air Jordan's second return to the league after an announced retirement will almost certainly help boost Turner's flailing NBA ratings for the upcoming season. But it could also lead the NBA to raise its asking price for renewal of its cable rights deal beyond what parent AOL Time Warner Inc. is willing to pay, according to industry observers.
The league and Turner are currently in an exclusive negotiating period to extend the current four-year, $890 million deal that expires at the end of the 2001-2002 season. That period lapses Oct. 15.
Going into the negotiations, Turner Sports executives said that although the company covets the NBA package, it will not spend excessively to retain it.
Turner Sports had some momentum behind it: NBA ratings have plummeted yearly since Jordan's 1998 retirement. The advertising market has also suffered a major downturn as a result of a sluggish economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
But the return of Jordan — arguably the most popular and greatest basketball player of all time — would certainly boost the NBA's contention that it should receive a major increase over the current deal.
Jordan will play for the Washington Wizards, in which he had held a minority stake. Jordan subsequently had to sell that interest in order to return to the league as an active player.
"Certainly the NBA is a much more valuable television product than it was last week," said one source close to the league.
The NBA may also have a wild card to play this time around: ESPN has acknowledged that it is interested in obtaining the league's cable package. Industry observers said an ESPN-NBA deal, which would give the network cable rights to all four major professional sports leagues, would significantly boost ESPN's leverage. It would also provide ESPN with another high-profile product to justify its perennial 10-percent to 20-percent rate increases.
Parent The Walt Disney Co. could conceivably use NBA games as a ratings draw for Fox Family, which the media conglomerate has acquired and will relaunch as ABC Family.
An NBA spokesman would not comment on its negotiations with Turner Sports.
Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes said the addition or subtraction of one player has never factored into a deal during Turner's 18-year relationship with the NBA.
"We've made deals with the NBA where Jordan has retired twice, but we've made those deals based on the strength of the partnership we have with the NBA and not on one player," Hughes said. "Higher ratings are an advantage for the partnership, and we're hopeful to remain partners with the NBA."
Some industry observers also believe Jordan's return will not factor into the negotiations.
"The return of Michael Jordan is a positive story, but I don't think you can quantify how much of an impact it will have in the negotiations," said Neal Pilson, principal at sports consultancy Pilson Communications. "It may increase ratings, but it doesn't change today's economic climate, which is incredibly bad."
As the league seeks new TV packages, both Turner and NBA broadcast rightsholder NBC are looking to increase the number of Wizards games telecast this season. By contract, a club can't appear on TNT more than 15 times or on NBC for more than 11 games.
Turner Sports only had one Wizards appearance scheduled — a Nov. 28 game on TNT against the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers. NBC had no Wizards games on its calendar.
Currently, Turner doesn't have national rights to Jordan's first game of the season, an Oct. 30 contest against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden scheduled to play opposite the World Series.
"We're looking at the schedule and working with the NBA to increase the number of Wizards telecasts," Hughes said.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass confirmed that the league is working with the networks to possibly accommodate additional Wizards telecasts.
"We've always allowed for flexibility of the televised game schedule," he said.
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