Once the domain of true crime series and procedural drama reruns, Saturday nights are suddenly getting a lot more competiteve on broadcast TV.
The networks have seen ratings hits with everything from college football to late-season NFL games, Nascar, premier boxing and UFC bouts—all of them live. Now ABC is adding to the mix, bringing the NBA to a once-sleepy prime-time weekend night.
This weekend, ABC tips off the first of eight Saturday night NBA telecasts, the first national prime-time package for the league on broadcast television.
"The NBA really lends itself to prime time," said Julie Sobieski, vp of programming for ESPN, which produces the games for ABC.
Aside from the Finals, this is peak NBA. When the NFL season draws to a close, major league baseball is still in hibernation, and the top NBA teams shake off the also-rans. "It was a logical opportunity to extend that franchise deeper into the year," said Sobieski.
A Saturday night game sandwiched between ESPN's Friday doubleheaders and ABC's Sunday Showcase gives the Worldwide Leader a chance at "owning the weekend," said Sobieski.
In addition to ESPN's regular Wednesday and Friday games, ABC will air three to five games per month on weekends. When adding in Turner and NBA TV's national games, the NBA will be on national TV nearly every night.
But Sobieski isn't worried about saturation. "We don't have that concern," she said, adding, "There are more and more teams that resonate nationally each year."
And ABC's Saturday nights will be all about the star power.
This weekend, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers host Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, with other marquee teams such as the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs featured multiple times. "Fans are going to come to the best games. It starts with that," said Sobieski.
ESPN will brand the Saturday and Sunday packages as separate entities. La Quinta has signed on as the title sponsor for NBA Saturday Primetime on ABC, while the Sunday games will continue to be branded as NBA Sunday Showcase and sponsored by BBVA.
Next season, the NBA begins a new nine-year television rights deal with ESPN and Turner valued at $24 billion—an average of $2.6 billion per year, three times as much as the current deal. As part of that deal, ESPN gets rights to 10 more games to put either on its own network or ABC, which could more Saturday night games in seasons to come.
"This isn't a one-year thing," Sobieski said.