Networks placed a bad bet on disappointing Knicks, Nets

Tyson Chandler of the Knicks tries to shoot Tyson Chandler of the Knicks tries to shoot over Brook Lopez of the Nets. (Jan. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

ESPN was out with the ratings report for its Christmas quintupleheader before noon Thursday, a mostly sunny set of numbers on a traditionally boffo day for NBA viewing.

The overall figures were especially impressive -- led by the two prime-time games -- given how the festivities on ESPN and ABC tipped off: With duds in which New York's two teams played at home and lost by a combined 46 points.

Hey, it happens. The problem for the Knicks and Nets is that it keeps happening, resulting in matching 9-19 records.

That would not have mattered in TV Land back in the 2000s, when both were national television afterthoughts left to toil in relative obscurity. But now the stakes have been raised.

Expecting big things this season, ESPN/ABC and TNT loaded up, scheduling the Knicks for a total of 25 games, tied with the Lakers and Heat for most in the NBA, and the Nets for 17.

To emphasize the point, all four games the Knicks and Nets play against each other were slated for ESPN or TNT.

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What now? TNT has six Knicks and six Nets games remaining. ESPN has seven Knicks and seven Nets games. ABC has five Knicks games. NBA TV has another six Knicks and five Nets games.

It would be easy to make fun of the league and network honchos for so spectacularly misreading the situation, but their schedules were released Aug. 6, when betting on the New York teams seemed perfectly reasonable.

And who knows, it might pay off in the end, what with many games to play and the Eastern Conference set up for a potentially interesting race for its third through eighth playoff berths.

If not, the NBA and its TV partners have ways out of such messes via a flexible scheduling system that allows for substantial tinkering.

There is no limit to the number of games that can be switched, but networks cannot flex in teams that have maxed out on their allowable appearances: 10 games on ESPN, five (or in some cases six) on ABC and 10 on TNT

ESPN has more flexibility to make changes than does TNT because there are fewer alternatives from which to choose during TNT's exclusive schedule windows.

Most likely, the Knicks and Nets will lose only a handful of their remaining national appearances, if that. But if what we saw Wednesday keeps up, the temptation will be to look elsewhere for teams that have been better than expected.

For example: The Trail Blazers (24-5) are scheduled for two games all season on ESPN and four on TNT.

Better yet would be a return to health for some hobbling stars and a return to success for some marquee franchises.

When the Knicks visited the Lakers in mid-afternoon on Christmas Day in 2012, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant helped attract 5.9 percent of homes in major markets to ABC.

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Even with Kevin Durant in town Wednesday, the struggling, Anthony-free Knicks and Thunder managed only a 3.7 rating in major markets, a 37-percent decline.

The Kobe-less Lakers, meanwhile, dragged ABC's late afternoon Christmas Day slot to its lowest rating in several years during a home loss to the Heat.

No other major American team sport relies more on its star players to generate ratings and merchandise sales than does the NBA. But winning matters, too, and the Knicks and Nets have done far too little of it so far.

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