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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO’s About-Face on Rights: ‘We Love the NBA’

  • After saying WBD doesn’t ‘have to have the NBA,’ Zaslav now calls the league ‘great.’
  • As rights talks are heating up, the TNT parent is facing immense pressure to keep its NBA relationship.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Facing immense pressure to hold on to the company’s NBA rights, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is now conveying a different tone regarding the league. 

In November 2022, Zaslav stunned both the sports world and investor community by proclaiming, “We don’t have to have the NBA.” Fast-forward roughly 18 months, and Zaslav’s discussion of the league is definitely not the same. 

“We continue to be in constructive negotiations with the NBA,” Zaslav said Monday at the Milken Institute Global Conference in California. “It’s a great league. The TNT team does a terrific job. And we love the NBA.”

There’s obviously plenty of subtext in what Zaslav was saying before, and still is now. Back in 2022, the NBA rights negotiations for the next term beginning in ’25 had yet to fully begin. Zaslav, meanwhile, would hardly be the first network executive to try to tamp down public expectations of a future rights deal, and he said then that WBD’s approach to the NBA would need to be “very disciplined” and a “deal for the future.”

Much has changed, however, since then. An exclusive negotiation period for both WBD and fellow incumbent rights holder ESPN has now expired, and recent reports point to Comcast’s NBC Sports making an aggressive effort to acquire an NBA rights package, along with separate efforts by ESPN as well as online retail and streaming giant Amazon.

WBD does have matching rights within its current NBA deal, providing a level of protection in these negotiations. But the possibility of the company losing its relationship with the league after 40 years has already seeped into rising questions about the future of TNT’s Inside the NBA and the status of star broadcaster Charles Barkley. WBD’s stock, meanwhile, has lost nearly one-third of its value so far this year, with a drop of nearly 10% last week driven in part by reports the network could lose the NBA rights. 

‘A Big Deal’

Zaslav also touted the power of sports, and the NBA particularly, as a uniting force in society, not unlike the bullish forecast for the league offered Tuesday by Disney CEO Bob Iger. 

“Sports [are] a big deal because … it’s a shared experience,” Zaslav said. “We’re all watching the [playoff game between] the Knicks and the Pacers tonight. We’re all watching the Super Bowl together. [Sports] reminds us that we have so much more in common than what differentiates us.”

The subject of the NBA rights is almost certain to arise when WBD releases quarterly earnings Thursday.

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