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The NBA's Heat Is Fourth-Quarter Ready

Even with a labor dispute that resulted in a shortened schedule that didn’t start until Christmas Day, last season was as much a winner for the NBA and its TV partners as it was for LeBron James and his champion Miami Heat.

Now the NBA is ready to fast-break into another season, in which the league hopes to see its momentum carry it through a fourth quarter in the TV business that has some ad industry insiders concerned. And perhaps like that of the new-look Los Angeles Lakers competing for an NBA title, many on Madison Avenue like the league’s chances.

“It’s the power of live sports. The lockout did not affect them,” Kevin Collins, senior VP, director of national broadcast for media agency Initiative, says of the NBA. Collins notes that in a DVR era, televised sports—and the commercials that support them—are more likely to be watched live than most other programming, especially by the target audience of young men.

The NBA’s momentum kept up through last spring’s upfront, when ESPN/ABC Sports and Turner Broadcasting sold a portion of their basketball inventory. While it’s diffi cult to make comparisons because of last year’s lockout, Collins says NBA sales appear to be ahead, with the nets getting moderate CPM increases. But there may have been a shift since the upfront because “the fourth quarter is a little soft,” Collins adds.

“They certainly have a great product, but at least in the fourth quarter, they’re up against a lot of other sports properties with increased programming hours,” says Sam Sussman, senior VP and director at Starcom. “You’ve got more live NFL this year than they’ve ever sold against. You’ve got more live college football. And you’ve got a market that [is not] very robust or highly active.”

The NHL lockout might mean a few extra dollars for the NBA, but most hockey advertisers already buy the NBA, so that’s not exactly a slam dunk.

Will it be tough for the networks to sell commercials in NBA games before bigger-ticket items like the All-Star Game, playoffs and finals tip off?

“Business is really strong,” says Jon Diament, executive VP for ad sales and marketing at Turner Sports. “We didn’t have a fourth quarter last year so it’s really an apples-to-oranges comparison, but we will be up this year. And compared to two years ago, we’ll be way over double-digit. So there’s a tremendous amount of growth. We’re seeing a lot of our existing advertiser base grow, and we’re introducing new advertisers as well.”

While it’s too early for fourth-quarter games to be sold out, “we have a lot of stuff brewing. A lot of big sponsorships are on the table that we’re excited about,” Diament adds.

Turner also sells advertising on NBA TV and Diament says 75% of TNT NBA advertisers also buy an extender. “Advertisers know that if you’re going to reach a fan, it’s not just during the live game, but before the game, after the game, during the analysis, whether it’s on traditional TV or mobile,” he says.

Sponsors for the NBA on TNT include, which presents tip-offs on TNT and NBA TV; Sprint, which presents halftime; and Hyundai, which presents postgame and Inside the NBA. New advertisers on both channels include Sony Playstation and Philips Electronics. The Marines will be presenting sponsor for “Game Break” on TNT telecasts. Hot categories include autos, telecom, beer/wine/ spirits, food/restaurants and retail. NBA TV’s new advertisers include Boston Beer, Sonic and Western Union.

“The NBA continues to be a valuable property for us, and demand remains strong,” ESPN says in a statement “We have new sponsors on board and several returning, including Kia, Toyota and Taco Bell.”

Last year, TNT had its highest-rated, mostviewed season in the 28 years it has worked with the NBA. Viewers were up 4%, men 18-34 were up 16%. ESPN tied its best season ever in viewers during the regular season; its playoff games were the best ever, up 25%. The Finals on ABC were up 5% in viewers, the most-watched since 2004.

Media buyers expect more of the same this year. “We expect for this season to start off where last season ended,” says Starcom’s Sussman.

“There were a ton of trades in the offseason, which is good for TV ratings,” says Initiative’s Collins. And the team that might have helped itself most by acquiring All-Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash is the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that often drives viewership. “In a perfect world, what does the NBA want, what does Turner want, what does ESPN and ABC want? For the Lakers and Miami to be in the Finals this year,” Collins says.

And with the move of the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, there could be a second attractive team in the big New York market, Collins adds.

But last year’s shortened season meant that the top teams appeared in a higher proportion of national games than normal, Sussman cautions. Nevertheless, he sees moderate viewership growth as the season moves into 2013.

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