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Can NBA Turn In-Season Tournament Into Media Rights Gold?

  • The NBA is seeking to expand its revenue stream.
  • It could follow the NFL's model of breaking up assets for standalone sale.
The NBA is looking to add to its revenue streams.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The hotly-anticipated negotiations for NBA media rights became more intriguing with the introduction of the new In-Season Tournament.

Starting with the 2023-2024 season, the NBA will launch a new annual competition for all 30 clubs. The inaugural event tips off on Nov. 3 – and culminates with the Championship Game on Dec. 9 in Las Vegas.

According to sources, TV plans for the first IST won’t be announced until August. Similarly, broadcast plans for the second annual tournament won’t be revealed before the 2024-2025 season.

But the NBA confirmed media rights to the tournament would be up for grabs in upcoming rights negotiations with incumbent the Walt Disney Co.’s ABC/ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT.

“Future media rights for the NBA In-Season Tournament will be included in our next round of media rights negotiations,” said a league spokesperson.

Regarding upcoming rights talks, the NBA is taking an “everything on the table approach,” said sources.

That means the NBA could fold IST inside a bigger rights package. Or possibly sell it as a standalone package.

The NFL, for example, has mastered the dark art of creating lucrative new packages out of thin air. 

Amazon Prime Video will pay an estimated $70 million to $100 million for the league’s first-ever “Black Friday” game. That’s on top of the tech giant’s $11 billion, 11-year deal to stream “Thursday Night Football” through 2033 exclusively.

“They have two partners right now on the national side. But who knows where it goes moving forward,” said sports media consultant Lee Berke. “They’re offering up more opportunities. The (IST’s) going to be one of them.”

But former ESPN executive turned consultant John Kosner thinks it is “highly unlikely” the NBA would split off IST as its own package.

“I think the league will make it into another tentpole – like All-Star Weekend and NBA Summer League – that will be used to enhance one of the new packages in the new deal,” Kosner said. 

Front Office Sports previously reported the NBA is poised to sell a separate package of streaming-only games under the next deal. According to consultant Patrick Crakes, bidding would likely start at $1 billion a year. 

The NBA’s billion-dollar rights talks will be the most talked-about sports negotiations next year.

The NBA’s expected to seek $50 billion to $75 billion for its next cycle of long-term media rights. That would more than double its current $24 billion deal that pays $2.6 billion annually.

During an exclusive negotiating period, ESPN and TNT will get the chance to defend their co-exclusive partnership with the NBA that stretches back decades.

But if they can’t close the deal during that window, Commissioner Adam Silver’s NBA can open negotiations with tech giants like Amazon Prime Video, Apple, and Google/YouTube. 

That’s when the sports industry will get a read on the real future of sports rights as legacy media companies like Disney face off against streaming giants with trillion-dollar market values.

On the world stage, Amazon is looming as the biggest threat to Disney and WBD’s hoops hegemony.

In 2021, Amazon signed a multi-year deal with the WNBA to stream 16 regular season games and the Commissioner Cup Championship on Prime Video. 

Last year, Amazon signed a multi-year streaming deal with the NBA in Brazil. 

The IST is designed to pump up TV ratings during the slowest part of the NBA season. 

But Kosner thinks the league might be better off shifting the tournament later to avoid competition with the NFL.

“I wonder whether or not the League will ultimately make it into more of a ‘mid-season rather than early season event and play it after the NFL season,” he said.

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