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Sunday, September 23, 2001
Updated: September 25, 6:21 PM ET
NBA could cash in if TV ratings soar with Jordan

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

Can Michael Jordan's return to the NBA fuel further fan interest, help the networks generate higher ratings, attract more advertising and boost television rights fee negotiations, all in the face of an economic decline and an impending war? That's what NBA and television executives alike are asking themselves today.

Michael Jordan
It was never a good idea to issue any sort of challenge to Michael Jordan.
Overall interest in the NBA has declined since Jordan last took the court in 1998. Average league attendance has slipped and its regular-season television ratings have dropped steadily, from 6.3 million viewers per game in Jordan's last season to four million viewers last season.

"Certainly the NBA, like all other major sports, has to deal with dilution and viewer fragmentation," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and a TV consultant. "But the decline was so strong the year after he retired and our research indicates that a substantial number of people (watch NBA games only to see Jordan), much in the way that golf gets a Tiger Woods audience that does not otherwise watch the sport when he's not playing."

Under the league's TV contracts, a single team can be televised on NBC a maximum of 11 times during the regular season and 15 times on Turner network cable stations.

"When we released our schedule in July, we had no Wizards games," NBC spokesman Kevin Sullivan said. "We're allowed to make changes to put the best possible match-ups on the air. So I'll go out on a limb and say that there'll be some Wizards games on."

But the networks likely won't book their season's allotment of Wizards' games just yet. Instead, they'll likely take a wait-and-see attitude to make sure Jordan's return maintains the buzz that has long been anticipated. Games to be televised nationally can be juggled up to two weeks before tip-off, Sullivan said.

"What do the networks do in mid-February when there's a Wizards-Cavaliers game? Michael could be getting 40 a night and maybe it would be better to go with the key game, like a Magic-Raptors game," said Pat Williams, the Orlando Magic's senior vice president. "Then again, maybe the public sentiment would be, 'We don't care, we just want to see Michael.' It's an interest decision to have to make and waiting some games out until later in the season could be the better option."

Said Pilson: "Jordan being back for the regular season is going to grow the regular-season ratings. This helps the networks selling the postseason, whether or not Washington makes the postseason finals or gets into the (conference) finals, so that the networks clearly are going to benefit. If Washington gets into the playoffs, I think you are going to see double-digit increases in ratings versus last year."

RATINGS DECLINE
TV ratings for the NBA Finals has declined since Jordan's retirement in 1999.
Season Ratings
1997-1998 4.3
1999* 4.0
1999-2000 3.4
2000-2001 3.0
Each ratings point represents approx. 1 million homes.
* NBA lockout
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he welcomes Jordan back to the NBA, even if that means his team gets less national exposure should one or more of its games be sacrificed to air Wizards games during the season.

"I'm a team player," Cuban said. "I want our sponsors and advertisers to benefit as much as possible. Our guys will earn their appearances, but more importantly, its the TV spots at the end of the season -- the postseason -- that we earn that I care the most about."

Jordan's return will help focus the spotlight on the league's new generation of superstars, Cuban said.

"People will watch him get dealt on by Kobe (Bryant), (Michael) Fin(ley), AI (Allen Iverson), (Tracy) McGrady and (Vince) Carter," he said. "The list goes on and on and (people will) realize that the guys we have are good. Our stars stand on their own merits, and anything that gets more people to see this is a good thing."

If the Wizards, who won 19 games last year, don't make the playoffs, there's a possibility that Jordan's return won't pay huge financial dividends to the league's television partners. That's because the majority of NBA television revenue -- an estimated 75 percent -- comes from postseason games. Since his retirement, three Jordan-less NBA Finals have drawn at least five million fewer viewers than any of the Chicago Bulls' six trips to the Finals with Jordan.

Depending on the economic environment, increased ratings could help the league generate a higher rights package than its current four-year, $2.64 billion deal, which expires at the end of the season. The window for exclusive TV rights negotiations with NBC and Turner was originally set between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pushed the negotiations back a week.

Ratings are expected to climb with Jordan back on the court, but just how long he intends to stay there and an uncertain economic forecast could prove mitigating factors in the ongoing negotiations.

"The state of the economy obviously cuts across all business, from the airlines to the NBA and NBC," Pilson said. "The prospect of a further economic downturn doesn't detract from the opportunity that Jordan will give the NBA, NBC and Turner, in a time of depressed (advertising) values and viewership.

Jordan's return, Pilson said, "is another way to get attention at an otherwise difficult time."

Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at darren.rovell@espn.com.