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Turner, Disney Press NBA Ad Sales

So far, Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC Sports are bullish on their ad-sales performance for the upcoming National Basketball Association season.

"We're probably heading toward 70 to 75 percent sold at this point," said Trish Frohman, senior vice president of sales and sponsorship for AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Sports.

Last January, The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and ESPN and Turner Network Television secured TV rights to the NBA through 2008, for a combined $4.6 billion.

The agreement — which calls for Disney to pay about $2.4 billion, because ABC will get the NBA Finals — put ESPN back into the NBA game for the first time since 1984. Its broadcast sibling hadn't been on the pro court since 1973.

ABC will air only the finals and a handful of regular-season games, unlike former rightsholder NBC, which aired a more expansive slate of coverage. As a result, there is now far more national NBA inventory available on cable than when TNT and TBS Superstation aired contests under the old deal.

'Brisk' of late

Nevertheless, the pace of sales has been rapid. "Sales have been incredibly brisk the last six to eight weeks," said Frohman, adding that inventory was at 65 percent sold in mid-September.

Units sell within a range of $25,000, with costs per thousands up "in the high-single digits" compared to last season, she said.

TNT's coverage tips with a preseason doubleheader on Oct. 24. The regular season starts Oct. 29, and TNT — in a cable first — will air the NBA All-Star Game.

The network also has an extensive playoff roster, including exclusive rights to a conference championship series — this year, the Western Conference finals.

Frohman, who declined to name sponsors last week, said that list includes "a lot of renewals and a lot of new clients." Movies and telecommunications firms are two of Turner's hottest NBA categories for Turner.

In addition, Frohman said Turner includes court-side ad signage in its package offerings — unlike ESPN and ABC, which can only use such signage to promote the NBA and their own programming, she added.

Turner spokesman Jim Weiss added that cable affiliates also are expected to do well in selling local ad avails during TNT's NBA coverage.

ESPN's slate will include regular-season and playoff games, including an exclusive presentation of the Eastern Conference finals this season.

ABC has also picked up NBA Inside Stuff
— the NBA Entertainment-produced highlight show that had aired on NBC for ABC Kids on Saturday-morning.

ESPN adjustments

ESPN/ABC Sports president of customer marketing and sales Ed Erhardt said his group has made some price adjustments to its NBA packages versus earlier this year, as occurs every season. That pricing reportedly was initially 20 percent to 40 percent higher than last season's rates on NBC and Turner — particularly for the Finals, whose rates are in the $500,000-per-unit neighborhood, according to some industry sources.

ESPN's season games are said to be going for $20,000 or so per 30-second spot, sources added.

ABC and ESPN have booked more than $10 million in multi-platform deals with accounts in the automotive, beer, telecom and movie categories, though Erhardt also declined to name names.

NBA sponsors figure to have prominent positions on ESPN and TNT's coverage. The league spent a busy off-season renewing many deals with sponsors that expired after the 2001-02 campaign. Historically, NBA sponsorship pacts have required the companies to buy time on league telecasts.

Sources said The Coca-Cola Co., Gatorade, American Express Corp., AT&T Corp., Anheuser-Busch Inc., Novartis's Lamisil, Verizon Wireless, Nestle and America's Dairy Farmers and Milk Processors have all either reupped sponsorship pacts or were nearing contract conclusion at presstime.