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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Charles Barkley: the Richest Free Agent in Sports TV History?

  • Barkley confirmed he has an out clause if TNT loses its NBA media rights.
  • If activated, Sir Charles could draw $20 million offers from ESPN or Amazon.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The high-stakes negotiations for NBA media rights could turn Charles Barkley into the most sought-after and highest-paid free agent in sports TV history.

With TNT’s 40-year relationship with the NBA said to be hanging by a thread, Barkley confirmed on an ESPN podcast Wednesday that he has an escape clause in his current 10-year contract that would allow him to jump to another network if TNT indeed loses its NBA rights.

The NBA’s existing deals with TNT and ESPN expire after the league’s 2024–2025 season. While ESPN is in pole position to retain the league’s “A” package, including the NBA Finals, and Amazon is reportedly poised to snare an exclusive streaming package, TNT could be shut out by former NBA TV partner NBC Sports. NBC parent Comcast is willing to pay $2.5 billion per year for those rights, according to The Wall Street Journal. (TNT currently pays $1.2 billion per year.)

As the incumbent, TNT has the right to match any offer. But will that happen? David Zaslav, chief executive officer of TNT’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, has previously stated that his company doesn’t “have to have the NBA.” And Barkley, one of the savviest media talents around, has been planning for just such an event.

Appearing on ESPN Cleveland’s The Really Big Show on Wednesday, Barkley confirmed he added an escape clause to his contract before re-signing with TNT’s Inside the NBA in late 2022. The basketball Hall of Famer added that he’s “in a really great position” contract-wise. 

“I just signed a 10-year deal two years ago,” Barkley said, “but one of the things I did was I put an opt-out after a couple years because I wanted to cover my ass when it comes to this situation.”

Barkley and his Inside the NBA castmates, though, didn’t foresee NBC trying to outbid TNT for NBA rights. “We knew it was going to be Amazon and Apple, but we didn’t know NBC was going to come out of the woodwork,” he said. “Listen, I love TNT, they’ve been great to me. … I wanted to make sure that if we lost the NBA in two years, I could be a free agent.”

NBC’s run of televising the NBA from 1990 to 2002 is regarded by many as a golden era of sports TV. Michael Jordan and his dynastic Bulls won all six of their championships on NBC’s airwaves. John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” theme for the NBA on NBC ranks as one of the greatest sports themes of all time.

With NBC on the brink of a reunion, the future of TNT’s Inside the NBA is completely up in the air. I asked several high-level TV executives with direct knowledge of the NBA’s media relationships what they think will happen with Barkley and the iconic studio show.  

As a free agent, Barkley, at 61, could draw offers of $18 million to $20 million annually, my sources predict. It’s a smart bet that ESPN, Amazon, and NBC would all vie for his services. Barkley’s current 10-year deal with TNT pays him upward of $100 million, according to the New York Post

“If Tony Romo is worth $17 million, Charles is worth at least that, or more,” one source told me. “Charles is a magnet. He’s loved. And he brings ratings.”

ESPN has lusted after Barkley for years, frequently turning over the cast of NBA Countdown in a futile bid to compete with his Inside the NBA team. The 1993 NBA MVP is tight with Michael Wilbon, cohost of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, who worked with Barkley on his 2003 biography. And ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro has shown that he will pay what it takes for top talent: He signed a five-year, $85 million deal to land Pat McAfee’s eponymous weekday show, and he’s paying an eye-popping $165 million over five years to Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to call Monday Night Football.

Then there’s Amazon. With annual sales of $575 billion, and a market cap of $1.86 trillion, Jeff Bezos could easily make Barkley an offer he can’t refuse. If Prime followed its Thursday Night Football game plan, it could make Barkley the centerpiece of a traditional NBA studio show very much like Inside the NBA. Amazon hired mainstream sports TV stars Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit to front its NFL coverage in 2022, and there would be no one better for Prime to build its new NBA coverage around than Barkley. (And if there’s any doubt that Barkley would sign with a relative upstart, don’t forget: He flirted with the deep-pocketed LIV Golf before re-upping with TNT in ’22.)

Would the rest of the Inside the NBA cast possibly join Barkley at his new home? Maybe. This is one of the tightest groups in the business. TNT signed Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson to contract extensions along with Barkley in 2022, and it’s a good bet that they have the same out clauses. It’s also a safe bet that TNT itself has escape clauses that would let the network off the hook for their long-term deals if they lose the Association.

If TNT loses the NBA, my sources predict that the Emmy-winning Inside the NBA would be history—a show without broadcasting rights makes little sense. O’Neal could leave TV to focus on his endorsements and his new role as the president of Reebok Basketball. Smith could return to the NBA as a general manager. And Johnson, a TNT lifer, would probably stay with the network.

The real question, my sources say, is: How long does Barkley want to do TV? He speaks frequently about retiring. He boasts lucrative endorsement deals with Subway, Capital One, Nike, and other blue-chip marketers.

Meanwhile, TNT’s cameras prominently cut to a shot of Zaslav enjoying the Knicks-76ers playoff game courtside at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. The clock is ticking on the budget-conscious CEO. Is Zaslav willing to stand up to his Wall Street doubters and effectively pay more for fewer NBA rights? Or is he willing to go down in sports media history as the exec who lost the NBA after 40 years at TNT? (TNT declined comment for this story.)

Former CBS CEO Larry Tisch is still remembered as a short-sighted cheapskate for letting Rupert Murdoch’s upstart Fox steal away the NFL’s NFC package in 1993. Tisch’s successor, the retiring Sean McManus, is hailed as a legend for saving CBS Sports by snaring the NFL’s AFC package in ’98. So how will Zaslav be remembered? We’ll find out.

Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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