|Thursday, December 12
Updated: July 22, 6:00 PM ET
LeBron might not be cash cow for network
By Darren Rovell
It started as an innocent request from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to the local cable provider.
With its boys basketball games selling out because of LeBron James, the Akron, Ohio school asked the affiliate if it would help produce a closed-circuit broadcast to be shown in the school's theatre.
The result was a much-debated and controversial pay-per-view alliance with the school, the University of Akron and Time Warner in Northeast Ohio. Time Warner would produce 10 broadcasts of St. Vincent-St. Mary's games at its own expense and profits would be split among the cable provider, the high school and the University of Akron, where eight of the games were to be played.
Although some columnists across the country ripped the high school and Time Warner for cashing in on young, unpaid talent, it's not clear the broadcasts will turn into a cash cow. After all, how many basketball die-hards have to see James more than his one free appearance on ESPN2 on Thursday night?
"People hear pay-per-view and they all of a sudden think that we are going to have 25,000 people calling us up to buy this at $7.95 per game and everyone's going to get wealthy," said Bill Jasso, vice president of public affairs for Time Warner in Northeast Ohio. "We're hoping to at least break even and allow this to serve as an experiment for the future of local events on pay-per-view."
Jasso said each broadcast -- which features play-by-play and color commentators along with four moving and two stationary cameras -- costs about $5,000 to produce.
Revenues for the first game were negated when a power failure knocked out the lights and the game was cancelled with a minute to go before halftime. All who paid for the game received a credit to their account, Jasso said. That means that in order for Time Warner to break even on the James games, it would have to sell the broadcasts to 700 homes per game.
"We've never had an experience like this before, so who knows what will happen?" said Roy Ray, vice president of business and finance for the University of Akron. "We won't know until all the games are over and the final analysis is done. But it's possible that we'll be talking about sharing zero times zero, which is of course, zero."
Although Jasso declined to give specifics, he said orders for the first first couple of games were "in the hundreds." There are 600,000 homes in 14 Ohio counties that can pay to see the game.
"Everyone I've spoken to has said that this not a clear money-maker for the people involved," said Jim Clark, one of the broadcasters for the pay-per-view production. "I'm certainly not making much."
Broadcasts thus far have hardly been the "All-LeBron James Show." In the first two games on air, James has led the team in minutes, having missed only five seconds of play, but he hasn't been the team's most prolific scorer. That honor belongs to Corey Jones, who has averaged 22 points to James' 18 per game. Time Warner also has not yet scored a one-on-one interview with the prep star who is the odds-on favorite to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA draft.
The TV network has been careful not to sell broadcast advertising time to car dealerships or sports bars to avoid any perceived ethical violation. But Jasso said those who complain about the idea of high school games on pay-per-view are stuck in the old ages.
"The people who say that this is corrupting the kids are very naive," Jasso said. "High school basketball has been on regular television for a decade. In this case, if you want to buy it, you can. If you don't want to buy it, you don't have to."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.