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ANALYSIS : O'NEAL COMING WEST IS PRIME DEAL.

Byline: Tom Hoffarth Daily News Staff Writer

Give an assist to Prime Sports West for helping finance Jerry Buss' slam dunk of Shaquille O'Neal with a $120 million contract.

Prime Sports West agreed to an unspecified increase in its rights to Lakers cable telecasts because of O'Neal's signing - likely a hefty chunk of change.

The practice of TV rights holders indirectly sharing the expense of a high-priced player contract has become fairly common in the sports business these days.

When a team goes in search of an expensive free agent, ownership often arranges a deal with its rights holders to kick in extra money.

The understanding is that their ratings will increase and, with that, they can charge more to advertisers to make it up. A cable partner can theoretically increase fees to cable operators as well. Think of it as almost an endless well of money.

Even though Fox Sports recently purchased the stable of Prime Sports affiliates, it had no direct impact on the Prime Sports West deal with the Lakers, who are in the second year of a 10-year contract with Prime.

Prime Sports West found itself on the other side - a break in their rights - when Wayne Gretzky left the Kings in late February.

Before former Kings owner Bruce McNall made a trade with Edmonton for Gretzky in August, 1988, he asked Bill Daniels, then owner of Prime Ticket, for some financial backing.

Reports are that Daniels increased his yearly rights fees from $1.5 million to about $2.3 million.

When Gretzky left, however, Prime's fee was reduced. Instead of $3.6 million, it went to about $1.2 million for the 1995-96 season.

In 1992, when Magic Johnson announced his retirement just before the season, Prime took a big hit when it couldn't get its rights fees reduced.

Prime Sports West general manager Kitty Cohen said she could not disclose contract particulars between Prime and the Lakers because of confidentiality.

Prime, which carried both O'Neal's press conference from Atlanta and the Lakers' press conference from the Forum on Thursday, has carried nearly every Lakers home game, regular-season and playoffs, since it started up 11 years ago as Prime Ticket.

Last year, Lakers games averaged a 4.6 rating during the regular season, 4.8 with the playoffs, according to Neilsen figures. One ratings point equals about 9,000 households in cable numbers.

The Lakers' highest-rated season to date on Prime was 6.1 during their 1990-91 championship runner-up run against Chicago.

The two highest-rated Lakers games on Prime have been Magic Johnson's first game back from retirement earlier this year against Golden State (10.8), followed by his second game against Chicago (11.6).

Don Corsini, KCAL Channel 9's vice president of programming, said a revenue-sharing partnership with the Lakers precludes a rights-fee deal, meaning his station was not asked by Buss for any financing.

The Lakers have been on KCAL, and previously KHJ Channel 9, for 19 years and had been in a rights-fee situation until recently.

``It's almost self explanatory what O'Neal brings to the table,'' said Corsini, who recently left Prime to join KCAL. ``I'd suspect the level of interest will be higher than it's ever been (for Laker telecasts). It's terrific for the Lakers, great for the fans, and great for us. Our ratings will get a hit and a bump.''

KCAL's regular-season ratings went from a 4.0 to a 6.9 when Johnson returned in February. Single-game playoff contests fluctuated between a high of 14.3 (vs. Portland, '91) and low of 5.7 (in '92) when Johnson retired the first time. Last year's playoff-game high was an 11.7 game against Houston. One ratings point equals about 50,000 homes.

NBC, which has slighted Lakers coverage the past three seasons to about one-to-two regular-season appearances, will no doubt add more games for the 1996-'97 season. The NBA's schedule for next season has not yet been drawn up.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 19, 1996
Words:660
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