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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Don’t Count Out TNT for NBA Rights Just Yet

  • The network is still fighting to save its 40-year NBA relationship.
  • Talks have not reached any matching-rights stage yet, sources say.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Charles Barkley joked Sunday night that TNT is so close to losing NBA rights he’s getting his own LinkedIn account. But the joke may be on those already counting TNT out of the multibillion-dollar fight for the Association’s future media rights.

Yes, rivals NBC and Amazon Prime Video are trying to elbow Turner Sports out of the league. Yes, Inside the NBA could be history after next season if those two get their way, likely making Barkley the richest sports TV free agent in history. Yes, TNT parent Warner Bros. Discovery is faced with the unenviable position of having to pay more money for worse NBA rights than it already has, especially if NBC parent Comcast is serious about paying $2.5 billion a year, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. That would be double the $1.2 billion annually paid by WBD.

But sources with direct knowledge of the talks tell me WBD is still very much alive at the negotiating table to try to retain its NBA rights. TNT won’t get the league’s “A” package; that’s likely going to ESPN, along with the marquee rights to the NBA Finals. But WBD’s still in play for the “B” package, which comes with a conference final every other year, or a “C” package, which includes the new midseason tournament, play-in games, and early-round playoff series. 

With the NBA already reaching a “framework” for deals with ESPN and Amazon, according to The Athletic, WBD is still the underdog. But it’s working to pull off a last-second buzzer beater that would enable TNT to save its 40-year relationship with the NBA. The only sure winner is the NBA, which is poised to nearly triple the value of its long-term rights cycle to the $75 billion range from $25 billion.

“Everybody’s sharpening their pencils,” said one TV executive with knowledge of the negotiations. “We’re all just waiting for the puff of white smoke from the NBA.”

There’s also the looming issue of “matching rights” between the two incumbents and outside bidders. WBD CEO David Zaslav has said his company has the right to match any third-party offers the league receives. But WBD hasn’t had to match any offers yet—because there are no official offers, sources said. That means NBC and Amazon are close but haven’t sealed their deals.

And there’s no guarantee that Zaslav’s interpretation is the right one. If and when WBD does match competing offers, the whole process could degenerate into a back-and-forth legal battle hinging on clauses in decade-old contracts.

“Both the NBA and Warner Bros. Discovery have begun poring over legal language to determine if the league can reject a potential match,” CNBC reported last week. “The contractual wording is vague, and it’s unclear if the NBA has full discretion to walk away from Warner Bros. Discovery if it matches the bid.

“If Warner Bros. Discovery decides to match, and the NBA moves to choose NBCUniversal’s offer, the sides may be headed for a lawsuit. Warner Bros. Discovery believes it’s fairly well protected by the contractual language,” one of the people said.

In other words, there could be lawyers, lots of lawyers, fighting over the NBA’s final decision on which networks/streamers will show their games into the early 2030s. That may simply prolong the agony for TNT if the NBA truly wants out of the relationship. But for now, TNT is still in the fight. 

Far from defiantly stating the WBD doesn’t need the NBA, Zaslav now “loves” the league. The CEO has been spotted prominently rooting on the Knicks during their recent playoff run. “We continue to be in constructive negotiations with the NBA,” said Zaslav recently at the Milken Institute Global Conference in California.

As its trump card, TNT still boasts Inside the NBA, the greatest sports studio show in TV history. With the future of the show hanging by a thread, there’s a newfound appreciation for the cast of Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson. “Everything about Inside the NBA feels authentic and real, which would make its loss devastating for NBA fans,” Awful Announcing wrote Monday, which about sums up the typical reaction from fans and media.

During an interview with Dan Patrick, Barkley said TNT’s NBA negotiations have been “very stressful” for everyone involved. But the Hall of Famer confirmed he insisted on an out clause during his most recent contract negotiation if TNT loses the rights.

Said Barkley: “I love TNT. I love everybody at TNT. They’ve been great for me. But I don’t want to be in limbo if we lose the NBA. That wouldn’t be fair to me.”

TNT is set to televise Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Mavericks and Timberwolves on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Warriors star Draymond Green will join the Inside the NBA crew to provide pregame, halftime, and postgame analysis.

Kudos to ESPN and Darlington

ESPN’s Jeff Darlington staged a reporting clinic during the surreal morning arrest of Scottie Scheffler at the PGA Championship. As Darlington witnessed Scheffler’s early-morning confrontation with a police officer, he leapt out of his car and filmed cops handcuffing Scheffler and leading him to a squad car. Darlington got so close, he was nearly arrested himself. His video has been viewed millions of times.

Darlington didn’t editorialize or try to turn drama into melodrama. He stuck to the facts, told viewers what he saw and heard, and updated the story through the day with statements from Scheffler and other key players. Journalism schools should study Darlington’s coverage. Amazingly, this year is the first the NFL insider has covered golf for ESPN. The network gets a lot of grief for making sports about itself. But this was Darlington, and ESPN, at its best. 

With viewers tuning in for the Scheffler soap opera, ESPN averaged 1.6 million viewers for its second-round coverage from 12 to 8 p.m. ET. That was up 18% from last year’s live second-round PGA coverage. 

Mike Drops

Pat McAfee continues to play by his own rules. The Indianapolis-based ESPN personality mocked his own network’s Knicks-slanted coverage of Sunday’s Game 7 against the Pacers. “There was a time actually, where they actually announced Jalen Brunson’s hand was [broken], where it seemed like Doris Burke didn’t even talk. Devastation hit the booth. Devastation hit the TV,” said McAfee on Monday’s show. … Bob Costas, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, and Brian Kenny will team up on MLB Network’s MLB Now for the first time this Thursday morning (11 a.m. ET). … Dr. Phil is getting into the sports TV business. The popular TV personality’s Merit Street Media has signed a new rights deal with Professional Bull Riders to carry more than 300 hours of PBR content annually.

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.

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