TV partners on NBA's team in wake of betting probe

'Good faith' earns support from nets

NEW YORK -- The NBA said Tuesday that it would work hard to restore fans' trust in the game after a federal investigation has revealed that a former referee is suspected of betting on games and providing confidential information to other bettors.

It appears that it won't have to work hard to win the trust of its TV partners, ESPN and Turner Broadcasting, who both said that they supported the embattled league. The scandal comes at an interesting time for the NBA, which recently signed a multiyear rights deal with ESPN-ABC and TNT to continue their relationship. Neither network was told about the FBI investigation before the new rights agreement, but an ESPN executive said the situation wouldn't have impacted the negotiations.

Referee Tim Donaghy, who resigned from the NBA on July 9 and has so far not been charged with a crime, is accused of betting on an unspecified number of games he worked and others he didn't during the past two years. It wasn't clear whether Donaghy tried to fix NBA games, but instead he might have made calls that would affect the point spread. Donaghy was a referee in 139 regular-season, eight playoff and four preseason games from 2005-07, when the incidents were alleged to have occurred.

"We're not positive it's games that he worked, although I understand some of those are games specifically that he worked," NBA commissioner David Stern said Tuesday during a news conference in New York. "I understand that maybe he bet on other games in which he didn't work."

The disclosure Friday that the FBI was investigating Donaghy rocked the NBA and its fans.

"We believe the NBA acted in good faith and that the league will do everything in its power to address this situation appropriately and forcefully," ESPN executive vp content John Skipper said. "We don't expect this will have a material impact on our agreement over the course of the next eight years."

Sports-media consultant and former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson agreed.

"I don't think that presents any issue in terms of television," Pilson said of the NBA scandal. "I don't think it has any impact on the value of the television contract." He added that he didn't think there would be any impact on attendance, ratings or other measurable metrics as long as the investigation remains contained to one rogue referee.

"I expect they will move on from this situation," Pilson said.

Turner Sports president David Levy talked to Stern several times during the weekend about the situation, though Turner seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach so far.

"We've been partners with the NBA for 24 years," Turner Sports said in a statement. "We continue to support the league. This is an ongoing federal investigation, so we'll elect to decline further comment at this time."

One executive who asked not to be identified said Tuesday that the networks were following the developments like everyone else but believe that if it's relegated to misconduct by one referee, then it seems like the NBA is taking care of it.

Madison Avenue isn't leaving the NBA, but if the scandal turns out to be widespread all bets are off, said Sharon Weinstein, senior broadcast supervisor at media buyer Initiative in Atlanta. Weinstein said that it doesn't mean that there isn't a cost for the NBA and other sports leagues that seem to be in the headlines every week for the misconduct of professional athletes.

"It's calling their ethics into question," she said. "Nobody's going to watch a game (where) they're not even sure the refs are being fair."

Stern said in the news conference televised live by ESPN, CNN and Fox News Channel that the league had been advised not to talk to anyone about the investigation. He also said that he felt the league had to speak out on the issue and answer as many questions as it could given the FBI's restrictions.

Pilson, who has known Stern for more than 30 years, said it was clear that the situation is causing Stern physical pain and that it was evident during the news conference. He also said that he felt Stern handled the situation well and that the media was sympathetic to the NBA's plight.

"This is a guy who has built his reputation and the reputation of the league on integrity and quality of presentation of the game," Pilson said. "This obviously wounds him deeply, but I think his credibility will help move the league forward."

Stern said he had been informed that the misconduct was "an isolated case" and didn't involve more than Donaghy. He said he wanted to make sure that NBA fans and others knew that the league was doing everything it could to clean up the situation.

"We take our obligation to the fans in this matter very, very seriously, and I can stand here today and pledge that we will do everything possible to analyze our processes and seek the best advice possible to see if there are changes that should be made and procedures that should be implemented," Stern said.
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