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Friday, June 14, 2024

NBC’s Time With the NBA Was a ‘Perfect Storm.’ Will History Repeat Itself?

  • Marv Albert and Bob Costas reminisce about the network’s NBA golden era in the ’90s.
  • A ‘Roundball Rock’ reunion may not recapture the glory, but it would push the network back atop the sports media mountain.
Steve Kerr was teammates with Michael Jordan for five seasons with the Bulls, winning three championships. 2020-04-13 Kerr Jordan1
Anne Ryan, USA TODAY, USA TODAY via Imagn Content Services, LLC

On a recent night, sportscasting legends Marv Albert and Bob Costas were enjoying dinner with their wives. Even though they’re mostly retired, the conversation inevitably turned to the story of the moment: Will their old employer NBC Sports return to the NBA after 22 years? 

“We were flashing back to how incredible it was to be part of the NBA on NBC,” Albert tells Front Office Sports. “I mean Bob’s studio work was incredible, starting with the opening tease. He was probably the best at his craft doing interviews. As for the game, the production people were at a different level, led by Tommy Roy and David Neal. They were ahead of their time.”

Many fans fondly recall that stretch from 1990 to 2002 as the league’s golden era. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won all six of their titles on NBC’s airwaves. With Albert, Costas, Mike Fratello, Ahmad Rashad, and Hannah Storm providing the commentary, and John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” as the pulsing soundtrack, NBC helped drive the NBA to new heights of popularity.

“The confluence of circumstances can never be duplicated,” says Costas. “The Bulls’ dynasty with Michael Jordan at the center of it. The original Dream Team. All the biggest games on NBC when the media landscape was very different. Double- and triple-headers on weekends, prime-time games throughout the playoffs. The promos on Seinfeld, ER, Cheers, [Johnny] Carson, [Jay] Leno, the Olympics, when NBC ruled the ratings and traditional broadcast networks still ruled TV.” 

As the multibillion-dollar battle for the Association’s media rights is coming down to the buzzer—with ABC/ESPN aiming to retain the lead TV package, and Amazon Prime Video seeking its own streaming deal—no angle is juicier than the prospect of NBC taking away TNT Sports’ rights and getting a reunion with the NBA.

Only three years ago, NBC was losing NHL rights to ESPN and TNT and shutting down its NBCSN cable network. Now it could reach the peak of the sports media mountain with rights to the NFL, NBA, Olympics, Big Ten football, Premier League, NASCAR, the Indianapolis 500, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Ryder Cup, and two men’s golf majors in the U.S. Open and Open Championship. And it would strengthen Peacock’s position in the streaming battle with Amazon, Apple, and Netflix for future rights.

The Golden Era

Back in 1989, then NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol viewed the NBA as an undervalued property that needed tender loving care. CBS, the league’s longtime TV partner, was still putting conference final telecasts on tape delay as late as ’86, notes The Ringer. When CBS declined to renew, NBC swooped in with a four-year, $600 million deal that tipped off with the ’90–91 season. 

The timing was perfect. Jordan won his first NBA title in the first year of NBC’s contract. The high point, literally, came during Game 2 of the Bulls-Lakers 1991 Finals when Air Jordan acrobatically switched hands from right to left in midair during a layup. Albert flew out of his seat for one of the most famous play-by-play calls of his career: “Oh, a spectacular move by Michael Jordan.”

Partly due to NBC’s brilliant coverage, the NBA and its stars became a global phenomenon. Albert was stunned to watch Dream Team players swarmed by thousands of European fans during NBC’s coverage of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. “It was very unexpected, even by the players. It was like a Beatles performance. It was really a crazy situation.”

As the decade progressed, NBC happily renewed its NBA deals in 1993 and ’97 at higher and higher prices. The late commissioner David Stern was so thrilled with NBC that he never put the league’s TV rights out for bid. 

But NBC’s joyride didn’t last forever. Jordan’s Bulls won their sixth and last title in 1998. A lockout wiped out the first three months of the ’98–99 season, killing TV ratings momentum. With NBC reportedly losing millions on its NBA deal, Ebersol threw in the towel in January 2002. 

Albert recalls a depressing meal with the team after their final NBA telecast. “We were all down about it. We all enjoyed working at NBC. When you’re doing this stuff, you think it’s never going to end. But it does.” 

Like a hit musical group, NBC’s basketball band broke up. Albert focused on NBA play-calling at TNT; Costas spearheaded NBC’s Olympics coverage. Four years later, NBC scored the rights to the NFL’s Sunday Night Football, which has been the most-watched TV show in prime time for a record 13 years in a row.

“We all appreciated, both at the time and in retrospect, what a great run we had with the NBA and how fortunate we were to have been part of the league during that era. But by then, I think most of us understood the nature of sports broadcast rights in the modern era,” Costas recalls. “NBC had already lost baseball not once, but twice, in the preceding decade, including just two years before, and the network was also without the NFL from the late ’90s until 2006. I think the general feeling was that it was a great and unforgettable run, but that’s just the way the business works.”

The More They Stay the Same 

In some ways, the NBA’s media history has come full circle from 2002.

Back then, NBC was the incumbent on the verge of losing its rights while TNT was sitting pretty. Cable networks TNT and ESPN were the challenger brands, swiping rights from broadcast networks thanks to their dual revenue streams from advertising and subscriber fees. Now giant streamers like Prime, Apple, and Netflix are the disruptors. With the cable bundle crumbling around TNT and ESPN, legacy broadcasters like NBC are back in vogue.

Back then, Stern kick-started the migration of live sports to cable TV by shifting most of his games to ESPN and TNT. Now Silver could accelerate the movement of sports to streaming platforms by shifting the NBA playoffs, All-Star weekend, and the In-Season Tournament to Prime. 

Back then, critics and fans bemoaned the loss of the NBA on NBC. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2001, “The NBA off NBC? It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but then, neither does Michael Jordan, starting forward for the Washington Wizards.” Now it’s TNT getting overdue love and appreciation. Dubbing it simply the “greatest sports show ever,” Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote a public plea to “save” Inside the NBA. “Appreciate it while it’s still here, because if this goes away, there may never be anything as good again,” he wrote.

As former lead NBA play-by-play announcer for both NBC and TNT, Albert has no rooting interest in which network ends up with which package. But he remembers the “chills” he got hearing “Roundball Rock” before Costas delivered his pregame teases.

Can history repeat itself? Not exactly, according to Costas. But it will be fascinating to see whether the Peacock can capture hoops lightning in a bottle twice.

“It had enormous reach and cultural impact. And it can fairly be said that under Dick Ebersol’s direction the games were presented not only skillfully but in a very dramatic fashion, which elevated an already very appealing product. If NBC acquires the NBA again, it will be a coup. And a large plus. And I am sure they will do an excellent job presenting it. … But the first NBA on NBC was just a perfect storm of positive circumstances. And perfect storms are few and far between.”

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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