NBA Cancels First Two Weeks of 2011-12 Season

Labor dispute threatens to erase millions in TV revenues

True to his word, NBA commissioner David Stern on Monday night canceled the first two weeks of the 2011-12 season as the standoff between franchise owners and the players association entered its 103rd day. And it’s the networks that will be left holding the bag.

The order to delay the start of the season came after seven hours of last-ditch negotiations failed to bring the two sides any closer to reaching an agreement.

“I’m sorry to report . . . that the first two weeks of the season have been canceled,” Stern said last night. “I think it’s fair to say that we established the positions of the parties with complete certainty, and we remain really very, very far apart on virtually all issues.”

No further meetings have been scheduled since the commissioner’s ruling was made public, and as Stern noted, “With every day that goes by, there will be further reductions of what’s left of the season.” All told, 100 games were wiped off the slate, including a much anticipated meeting between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks.

While a number of issues divide the two sides, at the heart of the dispute is the owners’ insistence on a greater piece of basketball’s revenue pie. Under the previous labor agreement, the players claimed a 57 percent share of Basketball Related Income (BRI); the owners are now pushing for something closer to a 50-50 split.

However the financial picture comes into focus, the NBA’s national TV partners—ESPN, TNT, and league-owned NBA TV—are now scrambling to plug the holes in their respective schedules.

“Like all NBA fans, we’re disappointed the season will not start on time,” ESPN said in a statement released shortly after Stern made his announcement. “We remain hopeful this will get resolved quickly.”

As far as programming is concerned, Bristol said it has had a contingency plan in place for a while now, one that will see ESPN subbing in college football and basketball games for any lost NBA broadcasts.

Meanwhile, TNT will swap in original and acquired series and theatricals where needed. “Like NBA fans around the country, our hope is that a favorable resolution is reached for both sides,” a Turner Sports rep said in a statement. “We believe in the strength of the NBA brand and hope for an outcome that preserves as much of the 2011-12 season as possible.”

Turner has an ownership state in and oversees all advertising sales for NBA TV.

ESPN this season was scheduled to air 75 NBA games, while sibling ABC was set to carry another 15 contests. TNT has the rights to broadcast 52 games in prime, including 22 Thursday night doubleheaders.

While there’s no way of telling how many games will be lost to the stalemate, many executives with ties to the NBA say they don’t see the season starting any time before December. One general manager said it’s likely that fans will be left with a compromised 50-game slate, as was the case during the truncated 1998-99 campaign.

The last time a labor dispute took a bite out of the schedule, it took three years for the ratings to bounce back to prelockout levels.

Rights fees for the canceled games will be refunded to both broadcasters. ESPN shells out $485 million per year for its package, while TNT pays $445 million. Both contracts run through 2016.

Should the dust-up negate the entire NBA season, both broadcast partners will need to replace some $900 million in ad sales revenue. The stakes get higher in the spring, as nearly half of those sponsor dollars are earmarked for the playoffs and the best-of-seven NBA Finals.