Viewed solely through an NBA lens, the expansion of the NBA on ABC franchise from Sunday afternoons to Saturday nights during the second half of the NBA season makes a lot of sense.
Viewed through the lens of ESPN/ABC’s commitment to other sports products, this move is exponentially more fascinating.
On Thursday, ESPN announced that its ESPN on ABC brand would include Saturday night NBA games along with the Sunday games ABC has been carrying for several years. ESPN on ABC has aired Sunday doubleheaders in recent years, but now, an eight-game Saturday night series will usually accompany single-game Sunday broadcasts in the back half of the NBA season.
The eight-game Saturday night package — with games starting at 8:30 Eastern time — begins on Saturday, January 23, the night before the NFL’s conference championship games. ESPN on ABC will trot out a six-game Sunday package that will begin on Sunday, Jan. 31. Sunday games will air at 3:30 Eastern, except for a Super Bowl Sunday special at 2 Eastern time.
Let’s get the simplest component of the story out of the way first. The addition of Saturday night games is very much in line with the NBA’s recent TV deal, a renewal of its relationships with both ESPN and Turner. As you can see in this report, the deal — at just under $2.7 billion per year — was supposed to result in an expansion of ESPN/ABC’s offerings, so on one level, this is merely a natural outgrowth of that deal. The NBA is a more lucrative product, so it only makes sense that there should be more showcase offerings of the sport, especially on network television.
Another specific reason this new package makes sense: By getting rid of the Sunday doubleheader and having single games on Saturdays and Sundays, the NBA reduces the chances that a doubleheader game will be a clunker. Single games per day on national TV allows the league and its television partners to be more selective… and not get caught with a bad product.
The rest of the story is more complicated, and highly intriguing at that.
Staying within the confines of the NBA, this bump in network-TV publicity will put a spotlight back on the league’s television arrangements, which will in turn remind the public how much money the league is raking in. Given that this story has been making the rounds the past few days:
Report: Nearly 10 NBA teams losing money http://t.co/3Rzuhlnu9H
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) July 16, 2015
… this ESPN/ABC Saturday night deal will make the public even more skeptical of the claim that teams are losing money. How this might influence the internal (labor-management) politics of the league, specifically in terms of either warding off a lockout down the line (or failing to do so), remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: The theater of politics will be fascinating — possibly repulsive, but certainly fascinating.
Now, to the realm of considerations beyond the NBA…
In ESPN’s release, the company noted that the eight-game NBA on ABC Saturday night package will include games on March 5, 12 and 19, during the heart of college basketball’s most important month.
On March 5, the first few conference tournament title games — part of Championship Week — will be held. Duke-North Carolina and other regular-season showcase finales in the power conferences will also take place. One wonders if Dick Vitale being bumped off Duke-UNC had any slight amount of impact on the decision to run NBA games on Saturday nights in March.
On the night of March 12, the power conference tournaments will stage several championship games. On March 19, the NCAA men’s tournament will be in action. As far as ESPN is concerned, the women’s NCAA tournament will be on the airwaves. The NBA crowding out women’s sports? It makes sense in terms of ratings, but does ESPN really have to send that kind of message towards women’s sports? That move will surely generate some reaction.
On the other hand, there are ways in which ESPN won’t necessarily compete with itself. Here’s an example: With ESPN having plucked the Pac-12 Tournament title game from Fox Sports 1 (beginning this past season), the WorldWide Leader has Bill Walton on its airwaves on the night of March 12, at 11 p.m. Eastern. (At least, that’s when the 2015 Pac-12 Tournament title game aired.) With the NBA on ABC occupying the 8:30 to 11 window, that’s a way for ABC to promote ESPN’s coverage of the Pac-12 tournament final, starring Bill Walton. ABC will be confronting college basketball’s peak time of year, but one can certainly see how ABC can promote ESPN’s interests in certain instances.
ESPN on ABC’s Saturday night package does step away on March 26 (NCAA Elite Eight) and April 2 (Final Four), but the run of March Saturdays will certainly create some tensions among basketball lovers. The NBA-versus-NCAA Twitter wars are sure to rage afresh next winter and spring.
And you thought this move was only about ensuring that the Lakers don’t hog too many TV dates next season… it’s about a lot more than that.