How a Baseball Team, TV and the Lakers Helped Ensure the Prosperity of the NBA

The ongoing saga regarding the availability, or lack thereof, of Time Warner Cable Lakers game broadcasts got me thinking about a thesis paper I'd read awhile back regarding the influence of television on the birth, survival and long-term success of the NBA. While all of the quibbling between media companies has rightfully rankled Lakers fans in the here and now, it's worth noting that, barring a number of key business decisions and twists of fate during the past 50-plus years regarding professional basketball's value as broadcast entertainment, there may have been nothing to quibble or get rankled about today.

Think about it: in 1953, a pioneering but short-lived company called the DuMont Television Network paid $39,000 for the first-ever national rights to broadcast NBA games. Flash forward to the present, and TWC's consideration for the regional rights to broadcast games -- for one NBA team -- is estimated at $3 billion.

But the Lakers franchise has done its part to earn such valuation. In fact, at multiple turning points during the NBA's history, the franchise's choices have been the keys to both its own success, and the league's survival.

Prelude to One of Those Turning Points

It was a hot summer day in L.A. in 1979. I was at home, indoors doing nothing in particular that I recall -- likely because Stage 3 smog was blanketing the city. The TV was on, but I wasn't paying much attention, until a curious promotional clip for that evening's sports-news broadcast interrupted the show in progress.

"Magic comes to Tinseltown!"

And with that short, but emphatic proclamation made following the 1979 NBA draft, regular programming resumed.

The 1980s Lakers-Celtics rivalry is often, and rightfully credited as the key historical turning point for the modern NBA's fortunes -- generating a critical mass of nationwide, then international interest in the league that has kept the NBA financially viable ever since. But, would the rivalry for the ages between Magic, Bird and their respective supporting casts have mattered to anyone west of the Central Time Zone, and more importantly to the TV networks on whose purse strings the NBA's prosperity hinges, had the Lakers remained in the Midwest two decades earlier to face likely extinction at the hands of Major League Baseball's expansion into the Lakers' market? Would that rivalry have even materialized, and if so, would the NBA have been around by the '80s to enjoy the renaissance created by the rivalry?

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, despite the George Mikan-led Lakers becoming the first NBA championship dynasty, the league was struggling to stay alive, and would remain in financial peril for most of the years preceding Showtime, as chronicled in The NBA on Network Television: A Historical Analysis, written by Mario Sarmento, a University of Florida Mass Communications graduate student who pored over a half a century of published information regarding this topic, including material provided to him by the NBA.

Even though Sarmento wrote his thesis paper in 1998, almost a decade and a half ago, and long-time NBA fans are largely aware of the good fortune enjoyed by the league that started with Showtime and was kicked into an even higher gear thanks to the Michael Jordan era, many of the details provided by Sarmento, especially the information predating the 1980s, will interest the history buffs among us. (Besides, the paper leaves off where many of the younger NBA fans', in particular Lakers fans', collective memories start first hand: at the end of Jordan's career and the start of the Shaq-Kobe three-peat.)

So, if David Stern, as part of his year-and-a-half victory lap wants to give credit where credit's due, he should provide a shout-out to the Lakers, the Minnesota Twins, and several men whose businesses failed but helped the NBA succeed -- among others mentioned in Sarmento's work.

Here's the link: The NBA on Network Television: A Historical Analysis.


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