An Early Look at NBA TV Rights: Will Anybody Challenge ESPN?

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After a busy few years of sports TV rights negotiations, only one major league is still available — the NBA.

The current NBA television deals with ESPN and Turner Sports do not expire until after the 2015-16 season, but the league looms large as the highest-profile property left for bid. Over the past two years, television rights to nearly everything else — the NFL, Olympics, World Cup, Major League Baseball, NHL, NCAA Tournament and college football playoff — have been locked up through the twenties.

Of the remaining properties, which include the second half of the NASCAR season and the Big East/Catholic 7, only the NBA has the ability to fundamentally change the sports TV landscape.

That was not the case in the mid-2000s, the last time NBA TV rights became available. The league was floundering in television ratings and public perception, and there was little demand among the networks to set aside a few hundred million for TV rights. Incumbents ESPN and Turner Sports, essentially running unopposed, were able to hold onto the rights an additional eight years.

Today, the NBA is in the midst of a five-year resurgence. Television ratings have broken records on cable in both the regular season and playoffs. On broadcast, where the league failed for years on ABC, ratings have soared back to NBC levels. The last three NBA Finals have averaged a double-digit rating, and four out of the last five NBA Finals have outdrawn the World Series in the same year.

The league’s improved fortunes are not the biggest change from the mid-2000s. Today, FOX and NBC — which were not even in the conversation when NBA rights were last up for bid — are likely to express perhaps serious interest in acquiring rights. With FOX set to launch two 24-hour sports networks this summer and NBC in desperate need of content for NBC Sports Network, the NBA’s hundreds of hours of game inventory are tantalizing.

As predicted by Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand last year, the NBA could also look toward an unconventional outlet such as Google’s YouTube for a game package. That may sound outlandish, but the NBA has never shied away from taking risks — shifting almost entirely to cable in 2002 was proof of that — and the league already has a deal with YouTube through its Developmental League.

More than three years before the next NBA TV deal goes into effect, here is an early look at the contenders: Fox Sports, NBC, ESPN, Turner, CBS, and Google.

The Challengers

Fox Sports Media Group
Networks FOX, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2
Do They Need the NBA?
  • Absolutely. Fox Sports 1 may already be off to a good start, but the network will need more content in order to avoid falling into the same abyss as NBC Sports Network. The biggest sporting events on FS1 will air on Saturdays — baseball in the summer and college football in the fall — leaving the rest of the week fairly empty. A Wednesday-Friday package of NBA games would shore up that glaring vulnerability.
  • Acquiring ESPN’s NBA package would kill two birds with one stone — strengthening Fox Sports 1 and weakening ESPN.
  • The NBA is a good match for FOX in terms of attracting younger viewers — certainly a better one than older-skewing Major League Baseball. Last television season, FOX had the youngest median age of the four broadcast networks (46 years old), and easily led the Big Four among adults 18-34. From 2008-11, the median age for the NBA Finals (between 40 and 42 years old) was younger than that of the Super Bowl, the BCS title game, the NCAA Tournament title game, the Stanley Cup Final, the World Series and the Daytona 500. In 2011, the latter two events — staples of the Fox Sports line-up — topped 50 years of age.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • It would make little sense for the NBA to move from the sure-thing that is ESPN to newcomer Fox Sports 1. ESPN is in more homes, is the far more established brand, and — most of all — is the go-to location for sports news. While NHL fans have perhaps overstated ESPN’s willingness to ignore leagues with which it does not have a relationship, the fact of that matter is that the NBA risks at least somewhat-reduced coverage on "SportsCenter" if ESPN loses the rights.
  • With that said, FOX could acquire the Turner Sports half of the contract. While that package has fewer regular season games (and still leaves ESPN in the picture), the numerous playoff games would be a boon in April and May. Of course, one then wonders whether the NBA would part ways with a long-tenured partner like TNT.
Likelihood
  • Early on, Fox Sports looks like the most legitimate contender to steal NBA rights from ESPN or Turner. Chances: 5.5/10

NBC Sports Group
Networks NBC, NBC Sports Network
Do They Need the NBA?
  • More than at any other point since losing the NBA, NBC needs to regain rights to the league. Not so much for the NBC broadcast network, which at least has the NFL and Olympics, but for struggling cable outlet NBC Sports Network.
  • NBCSN desperately needs another sport to go with the NHL. While adding the NBA would not solve NBCSN’s scheduling woes in the summer and early fall, the league would radically improve the network’s flagging television ratings.
  • Keep in mind, however, that NBC has been remarkably passive as of late. It was widely thought that NBCSN ‘needed’ Major League Baseball, and yet NBC passed without much resistance. The network’s big acquisitions in recent years have been second-tier (at least in the U.S.) events such as Formula 1 and the English Premier League. The last time NBC acquired a major sports league was 2005, when the network acquired Sunday night NFL rights.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • The NBC broadcast network — a failure in primetime for a decade now — hardly provides a good promotional platform for NBA games. NBCSN, meanwhile, has had well-documented problems with both distribution and attracting a decent audience.
  • While "NBA on NBC" nostalgia appeals to some NBA fans, NBC has nothing to offer that the competing networks can’t provide.
Likelihood
  • John Tesh’s "Roundball Rock" will continue collecting dust well into the twenties. Chances: 3/10.

The Incumbents

ESPN
Networks ABC, ESPN, ESPN2
Do They Need the NBA?
  • ESPN could survive without the NBA, but the league has been an important component of the network’s schedule for ten years. Other than college football, the NBA is the only regular sports program on ABC’s schedule.
  • The NBA Finals and BCS (soon to be the college football playoff) are the only major championship events to air on an ESPN network. Moreover, ESPN is completely shut out of the Major League Baseball, NFL and NHL playoffs as well as the NCAA Tournament. While that will change over the next few years — the network will get one baseball playoff game starting in ’14 and will likely get an NFL Wild Card game — the ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ will surely want to hold onto one of its few prestigious events.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • The NBA needs ESPN more than ESPN needs the NBA. Few may recall, but there was a time when ESPN treated the NBA like a second-class sport — and, not coincidentally, this was also the time when the league was at its weakest. On the day of ABC’s first NBA Finals game, ESPN gave blanket coverage (including a two-hour “SportsCenter” special) to Sammy Sosa‘s corked bat. After the Pacers/Pistons brawl, on-air personalities such as Chris Berman made no secret of their distaste for the league. Until about 2008, ESPN hardly even promoted its own games.

  • It is a chicken-and-egg scenario — which came first, the NBA’s resurgence, or ESPN’s increased attention to the league? No matter what the answer, the NBA would be wise not to give ESPN any reason to turn its attention elsewhere.
Likelihood
  • Expect ESPN/ABC to continue broadcasting NBA games into the foreseeable future. Chances: 10/10.

Turner Sports
Networks TNT, NBA TV
Do They Need the NBA?
  • The NBA is the crown jewel of the Turner Sports line-up, and the relationship between the two parties stretches back nearly three decades. Thanks to long-term deals with the NCAA Tournament and Major League Baseball, however, Turner could survive the loss of NBA rights.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • Turner has been a great partner for the NBA, but the league has shown in the past that it is willing to end a great relationship for more money (see: NBC in 2002). While ESPN’s promotional platform provides a distinct advantage over all challengers, Turner is more vulnerable. For one, Time Warner is the only major media corporation without a 24-hour sports network (Disney has ESPN, Comcast has NBCSN, News Corp. has Fox Sports 1, and CBS Corp. has CBS Sports Network). In addition, TNT and TBS are now in only 13 million more homes than Fox Sports 1 (currently Speed Channel), a gap that could potentially narrow as FS1 gains traction.
  • All of the factors that make the "NBA on TNT" one of the top sports programs on television could, theoretically, be replicated by another partner. Fox Sports — or, less likely, NBC Sports — could easily hire the personnel that have been key to TNT’s success.
Likelihood
  • Turner Sports is less of a sure thing than ESPN to hold onto NBA rights, but is still more likely than not to hold off FOX and NBC. Chances: 7/10.

The Dark Horses

Google
Networks YouTube
Do They Need the NBA?
  • An online platform acquiring rights to a major sports league could be — to use the cliche — ‘a game-changer’ for the industry.
  • YouTube already streams live NBA D-League games, a move that could be seen as a precursor to a larger deal.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • The NBA has been a trendsetter in the TV rights game for years. The league would likely relish being the first major sports league to sign a rights deal with an online platform.
Likelihood
  • It is unlikely the NBA would have Google replace any existing partner; instead, the league would probably create a new package of games. That alone makes a Google deal a somewhat more realistic possibility. Chances: 4/10.

CBS Sports
Networks CBS, CBSSN
Do They Need the NBA?
  • Nope.
Does The NBA Need Them?
  • Nope.
Likelihood
  • The only way CBS gets back into the NBA game is only if they partner with Turner for a combined bid. The only way Turner makes a combined bid is if the net pursues ESPN’s half of the contract — a fairly unlikely possibility. Chances: 0.5/10.

(Median age information from Sports Business Journal; FOX demo data from Deadline.com)

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  • http://twitter.com/NYCKING BIG ED

    If I’m ESPN I try to get NBA ASG in next deal. Alternate with TNT on a yearly basis. I wouldn’t be shock if TNT tries to get Finals.

    • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

      Don’t discount the fact that a Comcast/NBC bid could involve USA network as a platform as we’ll. USA network had the NBA in the early to mid eighties. There could be a scenario where NBA games could be on NBC NBCSN & USA Network. Which can provide more room for the NHL and NBA especially for the playoffs

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5228049 Rudolph Sanon

    While I agree with your analysis at potential new NBA TV partners, here are some things to consider:

    1. Fox Sports does not necessarily need to offer a Wednesday-Friday package. They could do a Monday-Wednesday package (with non-exclusive nights to protect viewership on the regional sports networks and NBA TV) early in the season and include Sunday nights after the Super Bowl a la the NHL package that Comcast has for NBCSN. Fox could also blackout games on the regional sports networks similar to what they will do for MLB to drive viewers to Fox Sports 1.

    2. CBS may not need the NBA, but if they want to gain leverage with the MSOs to gain more subscribers, they will need something that attracts viewers to their network (maybe more than NBC does).

    3. The demand for a la carte pricing may be the impetus that has consumers at the very least considering cutting the cable cord and look for alternatives to get their sports. In these hard economic times, consumers will realize that having cable is a luxury and not necessarily a must have and their viewing habits will change while adapting to whatever financial difficulties they have.

    4. Could the production costs devalue Disney because of the financial commitments ESPN has with their TV contracts across various sports leagues? How much the US dollar is devalued will determine that. A perfect storm of fewer cable subscribers, rising production costs, and a devalued US dollar can be the death knell for ESPN.

    5. Other than NBC, the only real advantage that ESPN has over the networks is the time windows available for ABC. Any scenario where ESPN has difficulty to pay off its broadcast deals could kill the network. There is a reason that NBC is currently looking a niche sports leagues and partner with them at bargain-based deals (hint: less financial risk). If Comcast can solve the distribution woes, they turn out okay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.d.johnsoniii Nathan Douglas Johnson III

    In my fantasy dreams I would want the NBA to return to NBC but I agree that that ESPN/ABC + TNT will keep their rights and the reason is because of competition. I dont see the NBA taking a risk with FOX and NBC considering that the League committed to Cable stations over Broadcast since 2003. I also want to point out that the NFL, MLB, College Football Playoffs, March Madness, NHL, and Olympics all stayed with their respective TV rights so I dont expect to see no major changes like we did in 2006-07 with Football, Baseball and Hockey.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sammy.leonard Sammy Leonard

    I would like to see another broadcast network gain the NBA’s TV rights to its games as ABC’s coverage has been average at best compared to NBC’s in the 90s and CBS’ in the mid to late 80s. ABC does not broadcast many playoff games in the first two rounds and when they do they always involve the Heat or Lakers. I would hope there could be a combined CBS/Turner bid that would keep ESPN’s cable half of the contract because ABC is clearly the weak link in the current package.

  • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

    I must admit ESPN may seem like they have more money but I think FOX and NBC/Comcast are very worth listening to and when it comes to production NBC always seems to have that upper hand but everything comes down to $$$ and in order for FOX and NBC/Comcast to gain a piece they must not be hesitant and match ESPN with every dollar. Its worth it if they want FS1 and NBCSN to be on par with the World Wide Leader

  • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

    If I’m Comcast I would consider involving USA Network more in sports programming much like FX and TNT are. It may benefit NBCSN in gaining rights and not have to worry about NHL overflow

  • http://twitter.com/TwiTati Tati

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the TNT coverage. But TNT does not have a broadcast Network Channel. So, i hope Fox picks up their contract and hires Charles, Ernie and Kenny the Jet. It would be awful for Joe Buck to call NBA Playoffs games though. ;)

  • Will

    Great analysis as always. I agree with you that ESPN and TNT will keep their respective rights.

    Assuming the NBA insists in keeping the finals OTA, what do you think of the possibility of CBS partnering with Turner to steal these away from ABC/Disney? I would think that the synergy that would be created between partnering for the NCAA tournament as well as the NBA would be really effective for both Time Warner and CBS.

    Its not as if the ABC package is that substantial, requiring CBS to open up and buy a great deal of regular/postseason inventory to match. Piggybacking the finals off of May sweeps on the #1 network can’t be a bad idea from the league’s perspective.

    • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

      I disagree that it is a given that both ESPN & TNT will keep their packages because a lot can change over the next three years. A combination of FOX trying to build their sports network and NBCSN desperate for sports inventory anything can happen and with all the money ESPN has tied into MNF and college sports the next deal may be too much to swallow for Disney and Turner is seemingly the most vulnerable to lose its package to News Corp. or Comcast/NBCSN

    • Paulsen

      I don’t think there’s a great chance of CBS/Turner submitting a combined bid. One of the things that made CBS/Turner such a dark horse with MLB rights is that CBS would (likely) be unwilling to air regular season or early round playoff games. ABC may not have much of a line-up, but the net’s pittance of regular season action is better than nothing.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5228049 Rudolph Sanon

        The only issue I see with CBS is how they will be able to shuffle college basketball games on weekends where there is no golf if they do a joint bid with Turner and win. There is also the possibility that, while highly unlikely, NBA games could be featured on the CW if Time Warner provides synergy with CBS and TBS.

        CBSSN can offer more open time windows than ESPN and can use a potential TV package as a means to get attract subscribers to the fledging sports network.

  • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

    What makes it hard for CBS is the fact they most likely have to partner with Turner and CBSSN is in weaker position than FS1 and NBCSN. But as I said before Comcast/NBCSN could be the surprise bidder and winner of either package because USA Network could be a factor and NBCSN needs another major sports league to put on its air with it being years before it could be available again. Don’t underestimate the fact that all the Comcast RSNs broadcast NBA games already

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrea-Cavalli/757338131 Andrea Cavalli

    I’m curious to see if a new tv deal will bring back the triple-headers on ABC (or any other networks getting the rights for that matter). I believe the NBA is deserving of that given the generally strong ratings the NBA on ABC has been getting in those past 4-5 years.

    I also can see Google/YouTube getting a package of games. YouTube is already showing D-League games and the D-League has been used by the NBA to test new stuff, both on-and-off the court. So watch out for that. It could be another trend-setting move by the league.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5228049 Rudolph Sanon

      I doubt NBA tripleheaders will ever come back on OTA TV. The networks will not feature primetime games on broadcast unless you get guaranteed double-digit ratings in primetime.

      Besides tripleheaders do exist with the “primetime” game(s) on cable.

  • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

    NBC would be the only network I see bringing back tripleheaders because they are weak in primetime. NBCSN has the ability right now for plenty of air time and can shuffle NHL coverage around. I’d just like to see another network with those rights taking over from ESPN/ABC

  • Marlon 1990s- current NBA fan

    Its all about who can give the NBA the most money. NBC can always push the NHL game of the week back to Saturdays to make room for NBA coverage and give NBCSN a weeknight package from Wednesday through Friday. While NBCSN could get the Thursday night NFL package that would only leave Wednesday and Friday

  • Bob Marley

    CBS/CBS Sports Network will get the ABC/ESPN package.

    Turner Sports will retain the TNT package.

    Google will acquire the digital rights for YouTube which will probably be associated with Turner Sports.

    That should be the ideal situation. If you don’t think CBS Sports Network needs some type of inventory then you’re not thinking.

    NBC Sports Network will takeover the NFL Network Thursday Night package in the near future since the NFL finally got its network on all major distributors.

    Fox Sports 1 & Fox Sports 2 will be fine because they’ll have tons of college rights like ESPN and that fills plenty of live programming, not ratings inducing but it’s better than what they had in Speed Channel & Fuel TV.

    I’m waiting for ESPN Classic to finally turn into ESPN3 because they’ve ditched the ESPN360.com and ESPN3.com name in favor of WatchESPN. College sports programming is underrated because you have so many teams and they’ll still attract decent viewers compaired to other networks that struggle.

  • Sam

    ESPN/ABC are likely to retain their packages, but maybe (hopefully, since they’re coverage sucks and their ABC TV ratings are awful compared to the days of NBC) these challengers will snatch it away from them.

    NBC could really use the NBA the most since they have a pretty weak primetime schedule outside of The Voice. If we’re lucky, they could set up a tripleheader on Sundays after the NFL season, although they would have to move the NHL games to Saturday, but that would be a solid sports weekend similar to the Fox Sports Saturday. They would probably add a Wednesday-Friday package to strengthen NBCSN. For the playoffs, they could utilize their many networks like USA and CNBC, which would be attractive to the NBA. And I’m assuming the NBA wants to continue to have the NBA Finals over-the-air, so obviously they would have them on NBC, but NBC would have to schedule carefully, since they have NHL and The Voice in early June also.

    Fox Sports would like the NBA, but I’m not sure they need it. However, with the addition of FS1, Fox would like for it to have premium live programming like the NBA. But they have a lot of college sports programming and baseball already, so I’m not sure how many vacant time slots they will have since November-February will be mostly college football and basketball. I think this depends on the extent of their MLB coverage, will they have weekly baseball games on weekdays? If so, that might be a problem for them, because the NBA playoffs requires multiple channels, and they will be taken up by baseball and NASCAR. Other than those problems, Fox could be in contention with NBC.
    CBS/CBS Sports Network haven’t really been major players, and I don’t see them becoming one now.

    I wouldn’t count out Google/Youtube, they already have D-League coverage, and I could see them getting a small package of a few games a year, and I know that the NBA would love to be a pioneer in online sports programming.

    I’m hoping TNT keeps its current Thursday double headers with occasional Tuesday games. I’m pretty sure they will be retained as they are setting cable records, like Heat-Pacers Game 7 was drew 11.5 million viewers even in a blowout. Plus, I believe they own NBA TV, which is important to the NBA obviously.