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This is television's year of the hoop. With NBC doing college games on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons and CBS telecasting NBA doubleheaders on most Sundays, the networks are showing an unprecedented amount of basketball. In the process, they should get conclusive answers to a couple of questions: How many basketball fans are there, and do their loyalties lie with the pros or with the colleges? Executives at both NBC and CBS freely admit that this all adds up to a rousing race for ratings, and each network has pumped a lot of money into backing its entry. So who will ultimately win the battle of the baskets? The fans.
Until this winter, college and pro sports have never challenged each other for TV audiences on a regular basis, but starting four weeks ago the two have knocked heads each Sunday, with first returns showing the pros with an early lead. One reason the NBA is out front is its $47.9 million, four-year contract with CBS that went into effect this season. From a broadcaster's point of view, the contract is the most liberal ever between a major league and a network. CBS may regionalize its telecasts (up to six games per Sunday), or run one national game if it feels a particular matchup warrants countrywide coverage. It also may do doubleheaders and even switch from a one-sided game to a close one.
This flexibility should preclude any of those dismal afternoons—which occurred all too frequently in past seasons—when the network showed a meaningless game that had been scheduled far in advance, instead of a concurrent one of real significance in the standings. Two weeks ago in New York, for example, viewers saw the surging 76ers in one game, the hometown Knicks in another, plus spot reports from a Celtics-Nets game in which the recently reactivated Dave Cowens was playing. Thus, during one afternoon, New York fans, who presumably are most interested in the NBA's Atlantic Division, got at least a glimpse of four of the division's five teams.
"I'm extremely happy with the setup we now have with the NBA," says Barry Frank, head of CBS Sports. "We can decide on Mondays what games we want to do the next Sunday. This means that we can be on top of breaking stories in the NBA. So far, the ratings show that we have beaten the college games on NBC the first two weeks, and I feel that things will get better as we get closer to the playoffs."
Perhaps. Last season viewers became accustomed to watching NBC's Saturday college double-headers featuring one regional and one national game. And the ratings on Saturday were better for college ball than the ones on Sunday were for the pros. Part of NBC's problem may be that numerous viewers have not yet discovered that the colleges are being telecast on Sundays. Whatever the cause of the slow start, NBC's vice-president for sports, Carl Lindemann Jr., is naturally concerned about his network's $3 million investment in college hoops. Before last week's televising of Notre Dame vs. UCLA, one of the most attractive matchups of this or any season, he said, "This game should draw a good rating. If it doesn't, we're in trouble."
The fans certainly aren't, because when networks fight for ratings, the results can be rewarding. More cameras, technical goodies and imagination are employed. One indication of just how intent each network is on selling its brand of basketball is the extensive reporting of events in the sport that have little or nothing to do with the game that is being telecast.
Billy Packer, NBC's analyst on national college games, is another example of how basketball fans are getting a better shake. A two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference guard at Wake Forest in the early '60s, Packer, 36, got into broadcasting five years ago as a colorman on the locally produced ACC Game of the Week. Although he has since covered three NCAA tournaments and become the best basketball commentator around, he still considers announcing a hobby; his principal job is heading Butler Enterprises, a Winston-Salem, N.C. supplier of hotel and motel equipment and furniture.
"I'm not the kind of announcer who tells the viewers which players like strawberry ice cream," Packer says. "I try to explain why one team is ahead of another and what the other team has to do to catch up. I don't spend a lot of time talking to coaches, because as an assistant coach at Wake Forest, I found out how quickly plans go off kilter. My role is to get the viewers to think about what is happening, instead of just watching the game.
"I really love basketball, and the easiest way for me to watch a game—any game—is to announce it. That way, there aren't any outside distractions. So it's a great hobby for me, and I expect that's what it'll remain. Sure, I've enjoyed the attention I've gotten from working for NBC, but as people back home like to remind me, I'm just a fat little Polish guy who is going bald." And telling the bare facts about basketball well enough to have received the rarest sort of praise for an announcer: acclaim from players and coaches in the sport he is covering.
There are still seven weeks of head-to-head competition between the colleges and pros. NBC's ratings, after the slow start, are improving, and it should be remembered that seven of the 10 top-rated basketball games ever to appear on television involved college teams. That alone should be incentive enough for NBC to keep fighting.