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Will They or Won’t They? TNT Must Match Bids or Say Goodbye to NBA

  • Once he gets terms, CEO David Zaslav will have five days to match.
  • If the NBA won’t accept, will Zaslav sue the league like Roone Arledge did?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The chief executive officer of the NBA’s TV partner faced a critical business decision. Should he sue the NBA for refusing to respect his matching rights against a third-party bidder? Or slink away in defeat as a network competitor swooped in to seize his hoops rights? 

Are we talking about David Zaslav of Warner Bros. Discovery? No—rather, legendary ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge back in 1973, when the NBA bypassed his network in favor of CBS. In what became known as “Roone’s Revenge,” the strong-willed Arledge went on the warpath, suing the NBA for allegedly negotiating in bad faith and counterprogramming CBS’s NBA coverage. CBS ultimately kept the NBA rights. But Arledge made his rival pay for their pyrrhic victory.

More than 50 years later, we’ll find out whether history will repeat itself. And whether Zaslav, like Arledge before him, will go on the offensive and sue commissioner Adam Silver’s NBA.

According to The Athletic, ESPN, NBC Sports, and Amazon Prime Video finally delivered the paperwork on their respective NBA rights offers, totaling $76 billion over 11 years. That puts the ball squarely in Zaslav’s court as negotiations for the NBA’s rights reach its endgame. At stake is TNT Sports’ 40-year relationship with the NBA—as well as the future of Charles Barkley’s Inside the NBA, the greatest sports studio show in history.

The proposed term sheets will have to be approved by the NBA board of governors in Las Vegas next week. If that happens, the rival contracts will be delivered to Zaslav’s desk. He’ll then have roughly five days to “match” one of the third-party offers—Prime, most likely. If the NBA rejects TNT’s matching offer, then Zaslav will have to decide whether he wants to fight it out in court.

It’s typically counterproductive for TV networks to sue their league partners. Then again this is Zaslav, one of the most unpredictable industry executives in years. WBD has been pursuing a long-shot bid for a fourth, less expensive rights package that would keep TNT, and Barkley, in the NBA game. 

But if that doesn’t happen, then matching a rival bid—and threatening a lawsuit—will be the last cards TNT can play.

During this week’s Sun Valley Conference for moguls, Zaslav reiterated WBD maintains “matching rights.” When the NBA’s last media-rights contracts were completed in 2014, the language for “matching rights” was left deliberately vague, according to a source with knowledge of the deals. So why wouldn’t Zaslav attempt to match at this point? What does WBD have to lose?

“As with all things, it comes down to contract language. What rights, or whose rights, do they have an ability to match? What constitutes a ‘match’?” Andrew Brandt, executive director of Villanova University’s Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law, told Front Office Sports. “As I say: There will be lawyers.”  

The problem for TNT is the NBA would argue it’s not strictly a monetary issue. With more than 200 million subscribers, Prime Video more than doubles the reach of WBD’s Max streaming platform, which is under 100 million. If they try to match NBC’s offer, the NBA could argue WBD won’t offer a free, over-the-air broadcast network for its games.

If WBD’s chances of succeeding in a lawsuit look promising after internal negotiation between WBD and the NBA, I could see the NBA handing TNT that elusive fourth package as a way to avoid messy and expensive litigation. Sure, the other three partners would blow their tops. More rights holders mean fewer games for everybody, even if they got a slight discount. But in the end, they’d have to accept it if they want The Association.

Look at this from Zaslav’s point of view. Matching a less expensive offer from a third-party bidder would enable him to fulfill his promise to Wall Street not to “overpay” for the league. Under the new deal, NBC is expected to pay $2.5 billion per year, and Prime $1.8 billion, to TNT’s current yearly payout of $1.4 billion. Despite his gadfly rep, Zaslav does not want to go down in sports history as the executive who “lost” the NBA. If he matches, or goes to court, Zaslav could argue he went to the mat to keep TNT in the NBA business. Still, that would hardly mollify Barkley, who ripped his bosses as “clowns” to Dan Patrick for mishandling the NBA negotiations from the jump.

“The first thing they came out and said, ‘We don’t need the NBA.’ That probably pissed Adam off,” Barkley said.

On Thursday, CNBC caught up with Sir Charles at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe on Thursday. Barkley said he hopes TNT, his home for 24 years, matches the offers from 3rd party bidders Prime and NBC. But he’s not optimistic about the final outcome. “Honestly, in my heart, I think we have lost the package. That’s my honest opinion,” Barkley said. “But I really hope we get a last minute reprieve for the people at Turner.”

Barkley reiterated he would not “feel comfortable” working for another network if TNT loses the NBA. “I don’t know if I want to do that.”

Zaslav and his white-shoe lawyers can pound the table all they want. But the NBA still holds the power in these negotiations. Without a court telling them what to do, sports leagues often do what they want with their own rights. Just ask the NFL, which added new Christmas Day games for Netflix out of thin air, while existing rights partners had to grin and bear it. If Silver really wants to flex, he could have his PR team issue a press release formally announcing ESPN, NBC, and Prime as its future rights partners starting with the ’25–26 season—daring Zaslav to do something about it. But it’s more likely Silver will stay classy and try to run out the clock on WBD.

Silver almost seemed to be sadly saying goodbye to TNT’s entire NBA team during a recent press conference. He thanked the entire TNT staff for their hard work and dedication. But in sports, somebody wins and somebody loses in billion-dollar sports-rights negotiations.

“It makes me uncomfortable that it’s zero-sum, that at the end of the day, there’s only going to be so many television packages. There are only so many Finals games and playoff games and regular-season games to distribute,” Silver said.

TNT has recently picked up new rights to the Big East and Mountain West Conference, as well as the French Open and the College Football Playoff. With existing rights to the MLB, NHL, and NCAA’s March Madness tournament, TNT will continue to be a major player in sports TV, with or without the NBA. But the next few weeks will tell whether its long and productive NBA relationship ends with a bang or a whimper.

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.

This September, the column will come to life as a one-day event bringing together industry experts to discuss media trends and the future of fan viewership. The event will take place in New York on Sept. 10 at Times Center (242 W. 41st St.)

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