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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The NBA’s Media Rights Renewal Talks: Here’s What We Know

  • ESPN and TNT have the right to match outside bids in the NBA’s ongoing national rights negotiations.
  • Beyond those terms, the NBA holds deep ties to both of its current partners.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The chances of ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT Sports holding on to meaningful portions of the NBA’s national media rights are going up, in part due to a little-known component of their current contracts. 

As the league has allowed exclusivity periods with ESPN and WBD to lapse to allow for more suitors, industry sources tell Front Office Sports that both networks have matching provisions that still allow each an opportunity to respond to outside bids before contracts are finalized. Those terms, initially reported by The Wall Street Journal, are said to apply to both streaming and linear rights packages the NBA could offer, the sources said. 

Those provisions are in place as both networks are making progress on possible renewals with the league, according to industry sources, though the final outcome remains uncertain. After an NBA Board of Governors meeting earlier this month, commissioner Adam Silver pointed to potentially fruitful discussions with the two incumbents.

“The conversations are ongoing and have been very positive,” Silver said. 

The NBA currently gets nearly $2.7 billion annually from its nine-year $24 billion deals with ESPN and TNT expiring at the end of next season, and a doubling of that outlay in the next term is certainly possible. 

Relationships Matter

Silver earlier this month also pointed to the emergence of streaming and ongoing media disruption, saying that those developments “open up all kinds of possibilities,” a comment that lends further credence to the notion of an entity such as Amazon also getting a piece of the league’s rights, and adding to a fast-growing sports portfolio that also includes the NFL, NWSL, and WNBA. 

But for the NBA, its current rights-holder relationships are also far more than mere contractual ties. The league has been tied to WBD and its prior incarnations in various ways since 1984, when cable TV was still in its relative infancy, and it also has been a partner with the company on key league assets such as NBA.com and NBA TV. Because of that, TNT Sports has been referred to by both Silver and his predecessor, the late David Stern, as one of the league’s most deeply trusted partners. 

ESPN, meanwhile, has been an NBA partner for more than 20 years, and beyond the live games themselves, the network has few, if any, true rivals in the amount of weekday programming muscle it devotes to the league among its numerous talk, highlights, and analysis shows. The network also has the unrivaled status of holding national rights to each of the four main U.S. sports leagues, something it is likely reluctant to give up. 

The Local Question

Another key element coloring the ongoing NBA rights discussion is the still-unsettled status of Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy. The company is attempting to reorganize, with a hearing scheduled for June 18 for ratification of its plan. 

If the league succeeds, and quickly, in recouping some or all of the local media rights held by DSG, that would represent another significant piece of inventory that could potentially become part of these broader rights negotiations. DSG, however, has also presented the NBA a proposal for a longer-term agreement that includes “rights fee modifications” and contemplates digital rights as well.

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