Playing in the big time

The NBA's top TV honcho now seeks to exploit video streaming

When Ed Desser left school after completing his MBA at USC, he figured he was destined for a staid desk job in the business world. "I figured I'd have to have some sort of boring profession," he recalls. "I expected to be a lawyer or something." He figured wrong.

Desser had already been bitten by the sports-media bug. An odd succession of radio jobs in production, programming and sales that started while he was still in high school in Los Angeles led to a job as executive producer for the Los Angeles Lakers radio network. And by the ripe old age of 20, he was director of broadcasting and executive producer for both the Lakers and Los Angeles Kings NHL team at California Sports. "It was in my blood," he says.

Moving to the National Basketball Association seemed a natural move but hardly a slam dunk.

Desser had developed a friendship with the league's general counsel, David Stern, and their courtside conversations led to Stern's making Desser an offer he was initially inclined to refuse. "I thought I had a great life in California. The thought of moving to New York was as unappealing as can be."

But Stern succeeded in persuading the young sports-media man to go east in 1982. And Desser has never looked back. He had already learned the basics of the league's broadcasting business from the team side, mastering the intricacies of what were then new technologies like cable TV and MMDS and marketing concepts like subscription TV.

But Desser arrived on an NBA landscape that was shifting radically. Recovering from its checkered reputation as a drug-ridden also-ran among major sports empires, the NBA was on the eve of the arch-rivalry between the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird and the Lakers' Magic Johnson. And the age of Michael Jordan would signal a further rise in the NBA's fortunes.

"What happened in the '80s," Desser recalls, "was the transformation of the NBA from classical sports organization to major entertainment company."

And he played a key role in that transformation. As vice president and general manager of NBA Entertainment, he had a hand in the negotiations that led to the league's first cable-TV contract with Ted Turner's TBS superstation in 1984 and to the advent of international broadcast distribution of games in 1987.

What Desser calls a "landmark" deal with NBC followed in 1990, spawning a new era for NBA Entertainment with the debut of Inside Stuff
and other weekly shows devoted to pro basketball. As president of NBA Television, he has been intimately involved in forging the relationship with NBC and bringing the NBA into the new age of interactive media.

The NBA arrived in the realm of convergent media with the recent introduction of its vehicle for satellite TV. The league has been the most aggressive of the major sports leagues in posting video clips on its site, and the prospect of streaming games in selected foreign venues is a distinct possibility. "Streaming video," he says, "is a very good way of serving niche products to disparate and dispersed audiences."

He emphasizes, though, that broadcast distribution remains the most efficient means of transmitting NBA games, abroad and domestically. But the NBA is constantly exploring new-media menus for "slicing and dicing" NBA content, he notes. "What we've done is morph the various forms that we package the product in to accommodate the ever increasing array of distribution opportunities."

It's an array that's steadily proliferating, and only Ed Desser can predict what the NBA's next media play may be.