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Six of the 16 teams in this year's NBA playoffs show their games on pay-per-view--the cable-TV option that allows local fans to see selected home games throughout the season by the game or as a package deal--and all of them are in the Western Conference.
Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Houston, San Antonio and Denver do it.
New York and Chicago don't. Neither do Charlotte, Indiana, Boston, Atlanta, Orlando or Cleveland, although in some cities, you still have to have cable to watch all of the games.
So why do teams in the West do pay-per-view? Basically, because they can.
How did pay-per-view get a foothold in the West? It's a geographic thing--nobody understands.
"It just may be coincidence," says Marc Moquin, assistant director of media relations for the Seattle Sonics.
"I don't think it would ever fly here," says a Cleveland Cavaliers spokesman. "All the games are on local TV."
"I don't know," says Portland Trail Blazers spokesman Jim Taylor. "Maybe it has to do with TV contracts. I'm sure the advertising dollars are much greater for someone like the [New York] Knicks."
(Which, according to a Knicks spokesman, is basically true. "We have contracts for network coverage," he says, noting that every home game during the season is thus televised. "There's no reason we should do pay-per-view.")
It could be that in the days before multihued hair and flapping tongues, when the NBA wasn't the wild success that it is now, the more well-known teams and more media-dominant markets--Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago--tended to be in the East, spawning powerful TV affiliates that broadcast all of the home games and produced enough advertising revenue that pay-per-view wasn't seen as an option. The newer Eastern markets, then, just followed their lead. In the West, only the Los Angeles Lakers enjoyed such monster status.
"More of the better teams have been east of the Mississippi," says Dennis Macklin of the Chicago Bulls, "and I guess the cities that had these wanted to give [fans] the best access. So, in that sense, you'd think someone [in those cities] would want to do pay-per-view; you'd make more money off of it. I've lived in several different cities--Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans--and the majority of the teams I've seen have never charged for the games they've covered."
Nevertheless, teams like the Knicks have their own versions of pay-per-view. The Knicks broadcast their games on a cable-sports-channel tier system that includes Madison Square Garden games for a beefed-up price.
Pay-per-view hit the Valley two years ago, prompting a fan reaction not unlike toddlers getting immunization shots.
Take Barbara, a Phoenix comptroller who paid $3 last Friday to watch the Phoenix Suns' first playoff game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Rockwells Sports Bar in Tempe. She remembers the fanatical support lavished on the Suns in the 1992-93 season, when the Suns came up short against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA championship series. It thrilled Barbara, a small-town girl, to see a big city jell around its team the way she was used to.
"It was like when our team would make it to the high school championship," she says. The signs posted in the windows of cars, hanging off buildings, everything.
Then came the announcement that 14 of the next season's home games--against the league's better teams--would be available only on pay-per-view. "It was like a slap in the face," she says. "Like, this is yours--but, really, no, it's not; you have to pay for it."
But because of the Suns' broadcast arrangements at the time, those 14 games wouldn't have been shown otherwise, says Paul Gregg, vice president of marketing for Cox Communications, which has a broadcast deal with the Suns.
In that season, for example, a select few games were picked up by NBC-TV, another bunch by ASPN and a number by the Suns' broadcast affiliate, KUTP, Channel 45. However, some home games were unavailable to Valley viewers. Responding to a suddenly ravenous market, the Suns and then-Dimension Cable worked out a deal that offered all those leftover games, a deal that Gregg says works because it includes rights to home playoff games not picked up by NBC. Similar deals were struck with much smaller cable outlets in Scottsdale and in the southeast Valley.
The New York Knicks, on the other hand, worked out a deal with their sports channel that televised all games for an overall higher rate to cable subscribers.
Harvey Shank, the Suns' director of marketing, says teams' individual television arrangements might depend on whether their fans' cable systems are adaptable to pay-per-view. "I would suspect that as we go along in the years, you'll see more teams go to it," he says.
In the Phoenix Suns/Dimension Cable deal's first year, Gregg says, the Suns had the highest pay-per-view audiences in the league, with just over 12,000 buyers per game. One playoff game against Houston was pumped into 43,000 homes.
"That shows a lot of interest in the Suns, but also acceptability of the product," he says.
This year, 13 regular-season games were offered as a pay-when-they-play package of $10.95 per game or $14.95 for each individual game. About 16,000 of Cox's 420,000 Valley customers chose the package option, which, along with individual-game subscribers, gave this year's pay-per-view games an average of 20,000 buyers per contest.
About 100 sports bars and establishments also have agreements with Cox to show the games, he says.
Suns fans weren't the only ones to have trouble swallowing the concept--pay-per-view met with an angry reaction in Seattle, as well as in Denver, where much of the proceeds are put back into the community. "This year," says a Nuggets spokesman, "we're donating a lot of money to the Oklahoma City bombing relief effort, which people can certainly understand."
And, compared to those in Seattle, Phoenix fans are getting a bargain--pay-per-view contests in the Emerald City go for $21.95 per game in a package deal, $26.95 for individual games.
Portland was, fittingly, the trailblazer in pay-per-view, which started when Bill Walton led the team to the NBA championship in 1977. At the time, people paid $5 a head to watch the games at a big site downtown; now they can get them on their TV sets. Portland also was the first NBA team to take full command of its radio and TV transmissions, in 1985.
So maybe if there were more of us, or perhaps if our potatoes were couched further east, we might be spared the burden of pay-per-view. Of course, there's always Salt Lake City, where there is no pay-per-view--and, as a result, a number of Stockton-to-Malone feeds throughout the season that don't end up broadcast at all.
"They've talked about it here, but I wonder if the market is big enough for it," says Utah Jazz spokesman Mark Kelly. "People are a little bit spoiled. To me, as a fan myself, it wouldn't go over real big if I had to pay $8 to $10 to watch a game, because on the same night, the NBA is on somewhere. I think people would just wait for the free ones.