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How The NBA Got to NBC

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 17, 2023 3:04 am

How The NBA Got to NBC

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 17, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in 1989 the NBA signed a $600 million contract with NBC to have the network air their games for four years. It was a long road to get there though. Pete Croatto, author of From Hang Time to Prime Time, tells the story.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we return to our American stories. Up next, a story from Pete Croato, author of From Hang Time to Prime Time, a great look into how the NBA went from a small financially unstable and mostly regional sports league to the entertainment behemoth it is today. One of the major ways that the NBA did this was to move from CBS to NBC, an effort spearheaded by Commissioner David Stern, but started with Commissioner Larry O'Brien.

Let's get into the story. So the NBA through the 60s, 70s, A, didn't generate great ratings. B, did not engender the confidence of television companies to give them big contracts. So by the time that the mid to late 1970s roll around, the NBA is really at a disadvantage. In fact, in 1978, the NBA was a breath away from not having a national television contract. So CBS Sports had carried NBA games, had done so without little issue, until 1978.

Here's the story. Larry O'Brien and Bob Wussler, the president of CBS Sports, reach a handshake agreement over the next television contract for the NBA on CBS. Bob Wussler, depending on who you speak to, either resigns or gets fired by CBS Sports for his role in paying players for a winner-takes-all tennis tournament. The new president at CBS Sports is a gentleman by the name of Frank Smith. Frank Smith does not have Bob Wussler's agenda for what he considers to be prominent sports on CBS. So Bob Wussler talks to Neil Pilsen, who works at CBS Sports, who's an attorney there. Frank Smith says to Neil Pilsen, Neil Pilsen, call Larry O'Brien. I don't want the NBA on CBS. I don't want it. Neil Pilsen says, Frank, we have a handshake deal with Larry O'Brien. We can't cut the NBA out.

We don't have any programming to replace it. Frank Smith says, that doesn't bother me. It's not my deal. Call Larry O'Brien in. We're going to negate this deal.

Neil Pilsen does that. Larry O'Brien and David Stern come into Frank Smith's office. Frank Smith delivers the news.

Larry O'Brien is stunned. We had a deal. I had a handshake agreement.

You can't do this. What's going on? He is apoplectic. David Stern turns to Neil Pilsen and says, Neil, let's talk outside for a minute. Pilsen and Stern leave the office. Stern immediately gets into Pilsen's face and says, you can't do this.

We have a deal. You can't do this. You can't do this to Larry. The NBA needs us.

You can't kill the NBA. He is pleading, pleading with Neil Pilsen for a television deal. Pilsen and Stern return to the office. The discussion is tabled. Later, Pilsen talks to Smith and says, look, we don't have anything to replace the NBA.

It doesn't cost us much. Let's just renew the contract. So eventually, Frank Smith agrees and the NBA gets its television deal. But that just shows you how precarious the NBA's power as a television entity was. David Stern literally had to beg Neil Pilsen to get a television deal renewed and not even to get an exorbitant television deal. I mean, I think it was $74 million. And then the next year, the next go around, it was $82 million.

It was not much. So the NBA was a terrible television property for the longest time. But what saved it was CBS Sports passed the NBA onto a young executive producer named Ted Shaker, who was formerly with the NFL today, the originator of the pregame NFL show. So Ted Shaker comes in and they liven up the coverage. They turn it into sort of a television program where you're treated to insight and background. He hires Tommy Heinsohn as the color guy, who's this, you know, flamboyant and colorful personality.

He gets Leslie Visser to deliver sideline analysis. He kind of, you know, turns NBA coverage into this like lively personality driven event. So the NBA under CBS Sports becomes must see TV, to use a hacking phrase. So thanks to the fact that you have this great television coverage and you have an influx of great television ready personalities who not only are charismatic, attractive, well-spoken, all American and apple pie, but they also play great. They're dazzling players. Folks like Isaiah Thomas and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Bernard King, on and on. You have all these wonderful, competitive, electric players. You partner those players with an irresistible television package and that is going to garner attention. And it did.

So fast forward to 1989. CBS Sports television contract with the NBA runs out. CBS Sports knows what it has with the NBA. The problem is, is that CBS Sports has an array of properties. It has tennis, it has auto racing, golf, it has the NFL with Madden and Summerall. It's got everything, including the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament is and was a huge moneymaker for CBS.

It is a colossal moneymaker. David Stern did not like that. He felt that the NBA had reached the point where it could become a network's number one star. So he wanted Neil Pilsen, who's now the president of CBS Sports, to make a choice. You can't have us both.

You can't. But the problem was the numbers didn't lie. In terms of ad revenue, ratings, the NCAA tournament was a huge moneymaker for CBS Sports. So CBS Sports signs NCAA basketball, men's basketball, to an insane, exorbitant contract. So that's the first blow that David Stern feels. The second is when CBS Sports, which had cried poor over not being able to fund the NBA or support the NBA, signs a $1 billion deal with Major League Baseball for something like 12 games a year. That made David Stern apoplectic. But there's a silver lining here. NBC Sports loses baseball. It desperately needs a Major League Sport to fill its schedule.

It didn't really have much of anything. So this was a perfect match. And it's made sweeter by the fact that the new president of NBC Sports is Dick Ebersol, who hasn't entered the background. He was an executive producer at Saturday Night Live. And he was somebody who saw sports as entertainment. So he and David Stern were simpatico. And he also knew what he could do to turn the NBA into a primetime event. So Dick Ebersol's ingenuity, coupled with the fact that NBC needed something to fill the void that it had in its program with the departure of Major League Baseball, that meant that the NBA could be the crown jewel of a network sports coverage. It could get primetime games. It could get a children's show that it could use for in-house advertising with NBA inside stuff. It could have coverage nonstop with commercials ranked during primetime. It was a perfect storm, to use another cliched phrase, of opportunity, individuals, and market. And CBS Sports could not match that offer.

They couldn't. It was a $600 million deal. NBC Sports' agreement with the NBA in 1989 is the springboard for what the NBA is today in terms of a major television property. The fact that we see NBA games on all the time, that NBA games are now on primetime television, regular season NBA games are on primetime television on network TV, all that comes across because of the hard work that David Stern and his cohorts brought to the table in 1989 to get them in the position for that lucrative television deal that gave them a ton of control.

So there's that. And there's also Dick Ebersol seeing an opportunity, seizing it, and knowing what he could get out of it. And it was a match made in heaven. Dick Ebersol and David Stern worked from the same brain in terms of turning the NBA into not just a sporting event, but into, again, elevated television, the same way that Friends or ER or Seinfeld had seasons with characters and plot lines. An NBA season was the same way. So that television deal in 1989 was the culmination of a long, hard road to legitimacy and mainstream popularity. And a great job on the production by Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to author Pete Corrado, author of From Hangtime to Primetime. And my goodness, that moment in 1989, when David Stern said, it's us or it's the NCAA, but it can't be both. And CBS said, well, it's that college basketball tournament. Sorry. That became in the end, the biggest opportunity, the story of the NBA and how it got to primetime here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 16:04:23 / 2023-02-19 16:08:37 / 4

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