By SARA FISHER
Now that Michael Jordan has hung up his Nikes, television executives are anointing Shaquille O'Neal as basketball's biggest draw.
The Lakers top the list of teams that will see the most TV time during the NBA's shortened season, which begins this Friday and ends May 2. They fill 11 slots on NBC's 28-game roster, which is the maximum allowed under contract. The New York Knicks, Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers tie for second with nine televised games each. On cable networks TNT and TBS, the Lakers will be featured 12 times, followed by the Knicks, which will have 10 games televised.
TV executives fear that many fans won't tune in this year because of the recent players strike and Jordan's retirement not a happy prospect given that NBC shelled out $1.75 billion for its four-year NBA contract, while TNT and TBS collectively paid $890 million. So to maximize ratings, station executives have targeted the Lakers as the team most likely to attract eyeballs.
Not only do the Lakers have one of the most competitive lineups in the league and a large fan base, they boast the megawatt star power of O'Neal.
"We anticipate that hardcore NBA fans will be back, but we are going to have to work hard to get the casual fan who doesn't watch games religiously," said Ed Markey, a vice president of NBC Sports. "The casual fans are the ones more likely to watch when they know the star, and Shaq is a star. He's a big media figure. That's where you find the biggest ratings."
Added Kevin O'Malley, a senior vice president at TNT and TBS parent Turner Sports: "The Lakers are consistently a very attractive franchise, but are even more so this year. Faced with a short season, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that the league has always revolved around its star power. This year, that's Shaq."
In addition to O'Neal's forays into rap music and film, and his many endorsement deals, he was the NBA leader in field goals last season.
"Everyone knows that with Jordan retired, Shaq is the biggest star in the league," said Lakers spokesman John Black. "There's no problem at the Lakers about Shaq being the man."
Black characterizes the team's No. 1 television status as a mixed blessing. On the plus side, the Lakers are expected to draw larger than normal crowds when on the road. The main drawback is the danger of overexposure. With the NBA cramming as many games as possible into a short season, the Lakers at one time will be playing three nights in a row. Later in the season, they're playing seven out of nine nights.
That means a lot of concentrated airtime. And when a team is on TV all the time, there's less incentive for fans to shell out to attend home games.
"Something like every other game we play will be televised," Black said. "There could be a backlash from fans."
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