During an industry conference last year, NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted he was “fascinated” with the job Amazon Prime Video is doing with “Thursday Night Football” — the ratings-challenged NFL package from which longtime broadcast partners like Fox Sports and CBS Sports had walked away.
With “TNF” averaging a linear TV-like 12.9 million viewers year to date this season, Amazon wants to create an exclusive night of streaming NBA action, sources told Front Office Sports.
According to sources, after agreeing to pay $1 billion yearly for “TNF” through 2033, the eCommerce giant is eying an NBA game package on Tuesday or Thursday nights.
The goal: create the NBA’s version of “TNF,” said sources. According to sources, the NBA is also intrigued by Amazon’s ability to draw an audience seven years younger than the NFL’s legacy TV partners.
Beginning with the 2025-26 season, the NBA will seek an estimated $50 billion to $75 billion for its next cycle of long-term media rights.
The league is still negotiating exclusively with incumbent media rights partners: The Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports’ TNT.
But both the NBA and Amazon have been dropping hints they’re interested in a billion-dollar NBA streaming partnership.
“I fully expect the NBA to have a streaming element as part of their next agreement,” predicted Bob Thompson, retired president of Fox Sports Networks turned principal of Thompson Sports Group LLC.
“Whether it is part of a linear package, say with ESPN/ESPN+ or WBD/Max/Bleacher Report, or a standalone package with a streaming-only outlet such as Amazon, is the bigger question.”
The NBA could negotiate deals with three to five media rights partners, said sources. The goal: maximize rights fees for its next media deal that will likely stretch into the 2030s.
This year, Amazon sports chief Jay Marine coyly signaled the $500 billion giant’s interest, saying they will be “aggressive” yet “rational” in pursuing the NBA and other league rights.
“Sports are unique; they are uniquely valuable. Because of that, they’ve also been uniquely expensive,” he noted. “Having said that, they can do things that other things can’t because it’s a guaranteed audience.”
Plus, Amazon is already in business with the NBA in South America. Last fall, the league and Prime Video announced a deal to stream games in Brazil starting with the 2022-23 season.
Another interesting wrinkle: The NBA has embraced streaming in China. The league boasts a $1.5 billion-a-year deal with Tencent Holdings, reaching over 500 million basketball fans.
The clock is ticking on ESPN’s and TNT’s exclusive negotiating windows. Their window expires in early 2024. Once that closes, all bets are off.
But it won’t be a piece of cake for Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.
Fresh off their triumph with Major League Soccer and Lionel Messi, Apple is likely to be in the NBA hunt, said sources.
Then there’s Google/YouTube, expanding via the NFL’s Sunday Ticket out-of-home game package. During a recent NFL meeting in New York, media czar Brian Rolapp said YouTube TV has driven “Sunday Ticket” to its best subscription levels in five years.
Meanwhile, Netflix is suddenly throwing its hat into the ring, as chief executive officer Ted Sarandos just declared: “We are in the sports business.”
Amazon, Apple, Google, and Netflix could simply use their enormous checkbooks to outbid other suitors. The league’s current legacy TV partners will also push their streaming capabilities.
Another package ripe for a potential streaming partner could be the league’s new In-Season Tournament.
On the TV side, ESPN and TNT could face a fierce challenge from NBC Sports, which held the league’s media rights from 1990 to 2002.
As a result, the NBA’s next media partners could feature a hybrid mix of legacy companies and streaming giants, according to John Kosner, the ex-NBA and ESPN executive turned investor and advisor.
“They want to reach their entire fanbase — so they’re unlikely to look ‘either or,’ said Kosner. “If they renew with their existing partners, you’ll undoubtedly see linear and streaming, including ample use of Max, ESPN, and Disney streaming. If the negotiations open up, Amazon and Netflix could be in play — with install bases that will rival and then likely exceed broadcast distribution during the next deal.”
The wild card here is the edgy NBA itself. Unlike the more conservative NFL, the NBA is unafraid to take risks regarding its media rights.
In 2002, the NBA shocked the sports media industry when the league moved most of its games to pay cable on ESPN and TNT from free broadcast TV on NBC.
That move changed the face of sports television forever. Is Silver ready to make sports history again 20 years later? Don’t bet against Silver and The Association making more history two decades later.