ESPN Prepares H-O-R-S-E Reboot While NBA TV Partners Wait

    • TNT aired televised H-O-R-S-E competitions with sponsor GEICO during All-Star Weekends in 2009-2010.
    • If the NBA’s 30 teams don’t play another regular-season game this year, ESPN and TNT stand to lose $136 million in advertising dollars.

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The playground basketball game of H-O-R-S-E is about to get another chance in the spotlight.

ESPN, the NBA, and the NBPA are in discussion to have NBA , WNBA players and former stars competing in the traditional playground game via their home gyms, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

While this event will likely represent the first time fans will see NBA players compete in basketball since the league’s hiatus began last month, it’s not the first time that a broadcast network will feature pro basketball players taking part.

Back in 2009, TNT integrated the insurance company alongside the NBA All-Star Weekend by renaming the game “G-E-I-C-O” instead of H-O-R-S-E. TNT had its “Inside the NBA” crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson announce the competitions, which were won by Kevin Durant both times. The TNT events were not technically part of NBA All-Star Weekend, and the league discontinued the event in 2011. 

Dave Campanelli, chief investment officer of Horizon Media, worked with client GEICO and TNT to create those events a decade ago. From GEICO’s standpoint, “the branding was out of this world,” said Campanelli. “They actually played G-E-I-C-O; not H-O-R-S-E…It was a home run for us to have NBA-associated branding leading into the All-Star game, where we couldn’t have much presence outside of our 30-second spots.”

But ratings for the event fell the second year as the novelty wore off, recalled Campanelli. “Ultimately, it wasn’t as exciting a television event as everyone hoped,” he said.

But that was then, this is now. Ten years ago, TNT’s H-O-R-S-E competition was just one of many events during a loaded NBA All-Star Weekend. 

Now it would represent the first opportunity to watch the league’s quarantined superstars since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver suspended the 2019-2020 regular season on March 12 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

As the NBA’s two U.S. rights holders, ESPN and TNT pay the NBA $2.7 billion a year to nationally televise games – Turner pays around $1.2 billion a year, while ESPN contributes$1.4 billion.

The stoppage has likely hit both partners hard – if the NBA’s 30 teams don’t play another regular-season game this year, ESPN and TNT stand to lose $136 million in advertising dollars, according to iSpot.TV.

While a H-O-R-S-E competition will not make up for the lack of games, it could help draw significant viewership for two networks desperate for sports programming.

“It could probably do a fairly decent rating,” Campanelli said. “I don’t want to put a number on it. But it would generate a significant amount of interest – for sure.”

It also raises the question of what sort of NBA programming could find its way to Turner if ESPN broadcasts this property.

The NBA could make it up to Turner by making TNT, not ESPN, the sole broadcaster of a future made-for-TV event during the sports shutdown, sources speculated, or potentially by giving Turner additional digital media rights. Turner and NBA jointly manage NBA Digital, which includes NBA.com, NBA TV, the NBA App and NBA League Pass.

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Currently, TNT gets exclusive TV rights to the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. ESPN gets exclusive rights to the NBA Finals, which are televised on sister Disney network ABC.

The NBA must weigh the needs of both rights holders, sources said. As a 24/7 sports network, ESPN has far more sports programming hours to fill across its multiple channels than TNT, which is more of an entertainment network with some high-profile sporting events.

Disney’s ESPN would also have the option of airing the new H-O-R-S-E event on sister broadcast network ABC. That would broadcast the event to millions of more homes than showing it on a cable channel like TNT.

For now, Turner is continuing to prepare for the resumption of live NBA games, sources said, while working with Bleacher Report to amplify content featuring NBA players.

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Turner and ESPN declined to comment, deferring comment to the NBA, which also declined to comment.

With the question of future rights and the return to original programming up in the air, the networks have turned to one of the oldest backyard games to get a head start. 

“Seems to me that playing HORSE is public domain, like singing Happy Birthday. I wouldn’t think one execution years ago would give anyone exclusive rights forever,” Lou D’Ermilio of LOUD Communication said- a sentiment shared by Horizon’s Campanelli.