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NBA lockout costing broadcasters

Stations scramble to find substitute programming

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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The NBA lockout could be a blowout loss for television and radio stations that carry the Boston Celtics, driving away hundreds of thousands of viewers and lucrative ad revenues.

For the regional cable channel Comcast SportsNet in Boston, the Celtics are a reliable ratings bonanza. But with a month’s worth of games canceled so far this season due to the lockout, SportsNet is scrambling to replace the live Celtics broadcasts - and to keep advertisers happy.

Every canceled game is a big loss. For example, 149,000 viewers tuned into SportsNet for the game between the Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 3, 2010, according to Nielsen Co. ratings.

On the most comparable night this year - Wednesday, Nov. 2, when the Celtics were scheduled to play the Cleveland Cavaliers - SportsNet drew only 9,400 viewers.

Audience shifts can be even more dramatic for games late in the season. For the Celtics-New York Knicks playoff game on April 17, SportsNet drew 298,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen numbers.

“Any time your property has the play-by-play games, and you suddenly don’t have them, that is clearly a problem,’’ said Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in sports brand marketing. “It’s a tune-in problem. The absence of the Celtics for live games is an impediment.’’

Stations are playing a high-stakes waiting game as the league and the players union fight over how to split billions in revenue. This early, there has not been much economic damage, since the high ratings and advertising dollars generated by NBA games tend to build through the season and peak during the playoffs, analysts said.

But if talks fail to produce an agreement, the entire season will be threatened, and stations could lose the lucrative ad revenue that comes with extra viewers who tune into live NBA broadcasts.

For the moment, broadcasters are doing their best to replace the canceled games. SportsNet is running old Celtics contests with commentary from NBA personalities like Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

“Despite the loss of Celtics games, which is admittedly painful, we are prepared to more than weather the storm,’’ said SportsNet general manager Bill Bridgen, adding that the channel has so far not lost any advertisers during the lockout.

But replacement programming is a poor substitute for the actual Celtics, who tend to dominate the local ratings on radio and television. “It’s not something that will be a complete solution for us economically,’’ said SportsNet’s Bridgen.

A 30-second spot during a Celtics game on SportsNet can cost from $2,500 to $4,000. A spot on an off night will command only hundreds of dollars, according to a Boston advertising agency official who requested anonymity to avoid conflicts with clients.

Bridgen said he has been converting advertisers such as Nissan Motor Co., which bought ads during canceled Celtics games, to other shows on his network’s schedule.

“Advertisers won’t be satisfied until the Celtics are back on air,’’ Bridgen said. “We are hoping that will happen sooner than later.’’

At radio station WEEI, which has carried the Celtics since 2005, vice president of programming Jason Wolfe said the station is having sports talk host Mike Adams run longer on what would have been Celtics game nights.

The lockout is “very unfortunate,’’ Wolfe wrote in an e-mail. “Certainly, we would prefer to be broadcasting the games because the team is still extremely competitive, and we know there’d be a tremendous audience for them.’’

It is difficult to measure how many more people tune in for game nights, because unlike the Nielsen ratings for television, the Arbitron survey used by radio stations reports the listening audience month to month. It does not provide numbers for a single night.

Wolfe is hoping to recapture some local basketball fans with the start of the Boston College basketball season on Monday, but he worries about the long-term impact on the sport itself if the lockout continues.

“As we saw with hockey when its season was lost in 2004, it took a long time for the game to recover,’’ he said, “and I think the same thing will happen with basketball if this season winds up being canceled.’’

WCVB-TV (Channel 5) also broadcasts some NBA games through its network affiliate parent ABC, and is scheduled to carry the Chicago Bulls vs. the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day. If the season is canceled, the station will air other sports or entertainment programming, said Lauren Griffiths, a WCVB spokeswoman. Officials from sports cable channel ESPN, which also telecasts NBA’s regular season, did not respond to Globe inquiries yesterday.

One analyst said the continued lockout could potentially be worse for cable operators.

“A subscriber who counted on seeing their favorite team might decide to unsubscribe,’’ said Mike Jude, a program manager for Frost & Sullivan, a research consulting firm.

“At the end of the day, who is being held hostage [by the lockout]? The network operators and their customers.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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