With salaries continuing to increase and a number of teams floundering financially, National Basketball Association officials are hoping that pay television will provide a lucrative lifeline for the league.
"Right now, the salaries are escalating quicker than the revenue from cable, but hopefully, down the road, cable will be a source of a large part of our income," said Rod Thorn, general manager of the Chicago Bulls.
Several years ago, only Ted Turner, with his superstation in Atlanta; Madison Square Garden in New York, and PRISM in Philadelphia offered a television package that included home games. Now that cable TV is expanding to all parts of the country, more NBA cities are investigating the financial ramifications of televising home games for a fee, either by cable or over the air.
Unfortunately for the financially troubled Bullets, there will be no cable contract in the near future.
"The theory here is that there just aren't enough subscribers in this area right now," said General Manager Bob Ferry. "We just have to wait until the system expands."
Seattle has just undertaken a major experiment, offering its entire 90-game schedule (exhibition and regular season) for $120 per home. The subscriber also gets $120 worth of coupons that can be exchanged for game tickets.
Zollie Volchok, team president and general manager, said the cable operation will cost the club $1.2 million. The Sonics will have to sell 12,000 subscriptions to break even.
"We're between 9,000 and 10,000 right now," said Lloyd Cooney, the team's director of broadcasting. "We've got one week to go, and things are picking up every day, but, to be honest, we're disappointed. I thought we'd do 20,000."
Seattle officials expected better results because of the team's proven popularity -- the Sonics have led the NBA in total attendance for three straight seasons.
After defeating the Washington Bullets to win the championship in 1979, the Sonics set a league record by averaging 21,725 fans per game the following season. Despite the absence of holdout Gus Williams and injuries suffered by Paul Westphal and Lonnie Shelton, the Sonics attracted an average of 16,466 fans per game last season while finishing last in the Pacific Division.
"I firmly believe that cable is the trend for the future," said Cooney, who has spent the last 26 years in broadcasting. "I'm sure there are 22 other teams out there watching to see how we do."
Assuming 18 of the 23 teams lost money last season, as many in the league believe, it is easy to understand why every team is investigating this possible source of revenue.
The defending champion Boston Celtics already have sold 13,000 season tickets in their antiquated 15,320-seat arena and could sell out every game despite the many obstructed-view seats. Still, they are getting involved in cable.
PRISM, the company that operates a sports channel in the Philadelphia area, has put together a package that includes 25 of the Celtics' home games, Big East college basketball, Hartford Whalers hockey, horse racing and movies.
"Most of Boston doesn't have cable yet, but it's coming soon," said Tod Rosenweig, the Celtics' public relations director. "In the future, there could be so much money made from cable that ticket sales won't be that important."
Turner was the pioneer in this field. One reason he purchased the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks was to ensure a source of programming. Once the Federal Communications Commission lifted the ban on relay satellites, Turner began showing all the Hawks games. His station reaches every state, and suddenly people jokingly were calling the struggling Hawks "America's Team."
To prevent the Hawks from infringing on other teams' territories, the NBA has restricted the number of games a team can broadcast. This year the Hawks' schedule has been reduced from 60 games to 50.
"We don't believe that televising home games affects the attendance that much," said Michael Oglesby, manager of public relations at Turner's station. "Everybody expects the home games to be on television, but weather isn't a factor, and if people want to see a live event, they go to the arena."
By contrast, many believe that Philadelphia's disappointing attendance last season resulted from the televising of so many home games on cable. The 76ers' average attendance was only 11,447, despite the fact that popular Julius Erving led the team to a 62-20 record.
"We earned close to $1 million from the revenue, and nobody has been able to determine if cable hurt us that much at the gate," said Harvey Pollack, the 76ers' publicist.
Phoenix is the only team that has protected itself against a decline in attendance, with a 13-year deal just concluded with American Cable Corp. In addition to an inflation-proof rights payment, the cable system is guaranteeing the Suns gate receipts from 11,000 arena tickets this season, 12,000 next year and 13,000 for every year thereafter for the life of the contract. This year, for example, if 6,000 show up for a game, the Suns still would be guaranteed the revenue for a crowd of 11,000.
The New York Knicks' home games have been carried on MSG for 13 years and have earned a tidy profit. The games are part of an entertainment package, and the team is paid for each subscriber.
"We have 44 cable systems that carry our games," said Harvey Greene, a network spokesman. "We cover a 75-mile radius and have 1.2 million subscribers. This year we're carrying 125 events, including all the Knicks' home games except one that CBS is doing."
The Chicago Bulls, the White Sox and the Sting (the city's professional soccer team) recently signed a cable contract that will begin next baseball season. SportsVision will sell the package to each household for $21.65 a month.
"Cable is going to need programming, and sports are the obvious solution, but it could hurt our live gates," Thorn said. "We're liable to wind up with studio shows and canned applause. Imagine the nonchalant players we'd have then."