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MBPT Spotlight: With Season Opener Weeks Away, NBA Scoring Big on TNT, ESPN Ad Inventory

The NBA season has a lot more games than the NFL season, so it takes longer for the league's TV partner networks to sell out their commercial inventory than it does for the NFL partner networks.

While not at the 90% sellout levels that most of the NFL TV partners were entering the start of the pro football telecast season two weeks ago, TNT is doing quite well on basketball. With about six weeks until the Oct. 29 opening night doubleheader on the network, TNT has sold about 25% more commercial inventory than it did last year at this time for all of its games-—regular season and playoff games.

And Jon Diament, executive VP of Turner Sports ad sales & marketing says fourth-quarter NBA in-game commercial inventory is about 75% sold out with the network getting price increases above 10% over last season.

"Ad volume is up significantly after last season's record-setting Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on TNT," Diament says. "There has been tremendous momentum from that playoff series last season."

The Eastern Conference Finals on TNT averaged 8.4 million viewers, up 8% from TNT's coverage of the Western Conference Finals the previous season. The Game 7 audience, which saw the Miami Heat defeat the Indiana Pacers 99-76, was 11.5 million, TNT's most-watched NBA telecast ever.

Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN global customer marketing and sales, would not discuss specific sellout levels heading into the season, but said ESPN and ABC's NBA ad sales "continue to be strong. There's a lot of interest in the NBA coming off a solid season last year."

The NBA regular season audience is one of the youngest among live sports on television. TNT says its median age viewer is 38, while the median age viewer of the games on NBA TV is 35. Plus, NBA players are among the most actively involved athletes in using social media. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant even tweeted during a playoff game last season.

"The NBA has a younger audience and it reflects the composition of the country," Erhardt says. "It is ethnically and culturally diverse. We pitch it to advertisers as offering them a very broad multicultural audience who are social media users. And it is a higher income audience. The NBA is also a great social media property because a lot of the players use social media."

Shoulders To Lean On

"Advertisers can also reach NBA fans across all our screens every day of the week during the season with our shoulder programming," Erhardt says. "And all our studio shows are live. I like having the NBA in primetime on Wednesday and Friday nights and, of course, on Sunday afternoons on ABC."

Diament likes having the Turner telecasts on Thursday nights, which he says draws lots of ad dollars from retailers, movie studios and gaming companies. He says different advertisers and categories have different strategies for using the NBA primetime telecasts.

"Gaming is a big category for the Christmas season and beer companies go heavy in the playoffs with the summer approaching," he says. "We get a lot of advertisers who buy in flights. Some buy for Thanksgiving, some for Christmas, some want to be in All-Star weekend, others want to be in the playoffs which are in April and May and are used for spring sales."

Diament says 90% of TNT's NBA advertisers also have a digital component as part of their buy.

Both Erhardt and Diament say strong ad categories for the coming NBA season include movies, retail, auto, insurance, wireless, QSRs and beer and alcohol.

"NBA sales were a strong part of our upfront selling and this season we have the Eastern Conference Finals and that has drawn enhanced advertiser interest because of Miami being the returning champion," Erhardt says of the coming season. TNT and ESPN rotate coverage each season of the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Both regular and postseason viewership comparisons between 2012-13 and 2011-12 are hard to make because the 2011-12 season was shortened by a lockout. Traditionally ratings for delayed seasons in professional sports are higher, as are those in the playoffs, because the shortened seasons ratchet up fan interest.

Putting Up Big Numbers

Turner averaged 2 million viewers over its 52 regular season telecasts last season, which was the third most-viewed regular season of all time (excluding the shortened 2011-12 season). The 2012-13 season was also NBA TV's most-viewed complete regular season ever, averaging 336,000 viewers for 98 telecasts. Turner also sells advertising for NBA TV and leverages its on-air talent across both TNT and NBA TV during the season.

ESPN averaged 1.8 million viewers during last year's regular season telecasts, making it also the third most-watched season ever on that network, while ABC averaged 4.7 million viewers over its 15 games last season. That too was one of its most-watched seasons.

All three networks, however, were down compared to the shortened 2011-12 season, and playoff viewership was also down vs. the 2012 playoffs, with the exception of the Eastern Conference Finals on TNT and the NBA Finals on ABC.

The NBA Finals on ABC last season was the second most-watched since 2004, as the series between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs opened with 14.2 million viewers for the first game and ended with a Game 7 viewership of 26.3 million.

Turner Sports enters its 30th consecutive year of NBA coverage with 53 games during the regular season, including 10 appearances each by the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder and nine appearances each by the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets.

In all, TNT will televise 20 Thursday NBA doubleheaders during the regular season. Also, for the 12th consecutive year, the cable network will air NBA All-Star Weekend events, including telecasts on Friday and Saturday nights (Feb. 14 and 15) and the All-Star Game on Feb. 16 from New Orleans. TNT will also televise more than 40 playoff games, including the Western Conference first and second rounds and the Conference Finals.

A Double-Double For TNT

Opening night this season features a doubleheader on Tuesday Oct. 29 with the Heat vs. the Bulls in the first game at 8 p.m. and a Lakers vs. Clippers matchup in the second game at 10:30. Prior to the first game's coverage, TNT will televise the Heat championship ring ceremony during a one-hour NBA Tip-Off Presented by pregame show at 7 p.m.

Opening-week coverage will also include a Halloween night doubleheader on Thursday Oct. 31 with games involving four playoff teams from last season—the Knicks vs. the Bulls at 8 and the Clippers vs. Golden State at 10:30 p.m.

NBA TV will televise 97 live games during the 2013-14 season beginning with the Brooklyn Nets vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, Oct. 30 at 7 and the Lakers vs. Golden State at 10:30.

For the fifth consecutive year, NBA TV Fan Night presented by Sprint returns on Tuesday nights throughout the season beginning Nov. 5, where fans will once again have the opportunity to vote for the game they want to see most each week.

NBA Digital, the NBA's cross-platform portfolio of digital assets, is managed jointly by the NBA and Turner Sports.

ESPN coverage begins with an Oct. 23 preseason doubleheader with the Nets vs. the Celtics at 8 p.m. and the Bulls vs. Oklahoma City at 10:30.

ESPN will televise 75 games during the regular season and ABC will air 15 regular season games on Sunday afternoons. Opening night of regular season telecasts for ESPN will be on Friday, Nov. 1 with a doubleheader featuring the Heat vs. the Nets at 8 p.m. and the Lakers vs. the Spurs at 10:30.

Six teams will make 10 appearances each on ESPN—-the Bulls, Lakers, Heat, Knicks, Oklahoma City and Houston. On ABC, the Heat and Knicks will make six appearances and the Lakers and Bulls will make five.

On Christmas Day, ESPN and ABC will air five games, including a doubleheader on ABC with the Knicks vs. Oklahoma City at 2:30 and the Heat vs. the Lakers at 5 p.m.

Erhardt said all the ESPN NBA games will be available for viewing on multiple platforms, including smartphones, tablets and mobile. ESPN is selling separate advertising for its TV games and each of its digital platforms.

As far as competing for NBA game telecast ad dollars, both Diament and Erhardt believe there are enough dollars to go around. And many of the major advertisers are running ads on all four networks, particularly the official NBA sponsors.

"We don't compete much with ESPN when we're out selling," Diament says. "We have our games and events and they have theirs. We both represent the NBA and sell the league. We're more partners than competitors."