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Yuletide brings TV tester in NBA

Right about the time you polished off that last mince pie last night and too much sherry convinced gran that Chris Tarrant was actually Santa Claus, millions of our cousins across the pond were gathering round the tree to partake in their most noble Yuletide tradition. Its name ? A double header featuring the New York Knicks versus Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs versus the LA Lakers.

The NBA doesn't stop even for Christmas but December 25 marks the annual day when the league is re-joined to the masses with the first live games of the season on network television. 

However the era of digital technology has increased the availability of NBA games across North America, with the recent launch of the world's first television channel dedicated to a single sports league - TV. 

Broadcasting from midday to midnight, seven days a week, the new channel provides an couch potato's paradise. Look-ins on games, live reports, classic games and entertainment shows. With one of the largest in-house libraries of sports programming in the world, the NBA is realising what media soothsayers see as Pandora's box - vertical integration of sport and the small screen.

" TV represents the convergence of the Internet, television and basketball," states the league's Commissioner David Stern. "By combining the immediacy and depth of information from with current and historical television programming from the NBA, TV will offer our fans complete, round-the-clock coverage of the league. TV will be the place to turn for anything and everything about the NBA as it's happening."

Stern admits that it was the steps first taken by Manchester United through their MUTV venture which spurred his own organisation to branch out into a more comprehensive package. 6.6 millions homes across the United States and Canada initially have access to the station and with the digital boom growing as fast there as it is here, the revenues which could potentially drop into the NBA's already bulging pockets are vast. 

But it doesn't stop there. The league already sells a digital season ticket which screens games either for a single team or for the entire league. For the relatively meagre sum of £100 each year, subscribers get more than 1,000 matches over the course of the season.

Some say there is a danger of over-exposure. In the post- Michael Jordan era, many teams are finding it tougher than ever to sell out their vast arenas. Several franchises are reporting their worst-ever attendances as they struggle still to rebound from the fall-out from last season's strike which left many disillusioned with the greed of their slam-dunking heroes. Only time will tell if such a wide choice of action available on the box will discourage punters from attending in person and placing their bums on seats.

So might the NBA capitalise on its ever-increasing popularity in Europe by replicating the development over here ? Through the NBA's website, fans - including those overseas - can buy a season pass which provides radio commentary for each game. With access also to audio and video footage of games, interviews and press conferences, it is breaking new ground in tapping into a global audience. But as for television, the response is not yet, but never say never. 

"NBA programming is currently broadcast around the world in 205 countries by 125 telecasters in 42 languages," says NBA Vice President Terry Lyons.  "And in the immediate future, our focus will remain on our arrangements with those 125 telecasters worldwide.

"Overall, we remain very optimistic about the potential that the ever-changing technology - whether it be via the Internet, satellite television or many other areas - brings to the NBA and to our worldwide basketball fans."

The FA Premiership will certainly be watching with interest. With a variety of options open to them when their current tie-up with BSkyB and the BBC comes to a close in 2001, following the NBA's lead is sure to be an attractive avenue. But with seven nights of air-time to fill, it would surely encourage a further dilution of football as a Saturday afternoon staple.

But for now, basketball Stateside is making a decent case that like surprise Christmas presents, maybe you can't have too much of a good thing.

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