Warner Bros. Discovery values its NBA programming so much that it recently struck a multi-year deal to keep its top basketball analysts in their chairs over at TNT Warner Bros. And yet the company doesn’t “have to have the NBA,” the company’s top executive said Tuesday at an investor conference, per Variety.
And so begins the long road to negotiating what is expected to be yet another mammoth sports-rights pact between a major league and a bevy of media companies. The NBA’s last rights contract, signed with the former Time Warner’s Turner Sports and Walt Disney’s ESPN, was valued at more than $2 billion, and lapses after the 2024-25 season. With the NFL recently securing what is believed to be $110 billion over the course of 11 years with Disney, Paramount Global, NBCUniversal, Fox and Amazon, the NBA is likely to press for significant increases.
That doesn’t seem to faze top media executives at the head of companies likely to bid. “It has to be a deal for the future. It can’t be a deal for the past,” David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, said during an investor conference held by RBC. Disney CEO Bob Chapek recently told investors that Disney “would love to be in business with the NBA” so long as a pact can be structured in a “fiscally responsible way” with multiplatform rights.
The executives’ programming strategies belie their sangfroid. Warner Bros. Discovery Sports, once known as Turner Sports, runs what is ostensibly the most popular NBA studio show, led by Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. The company has signed all four to new deals that would keep them tied to Inside the NBA and other properties for the next several years. At Disney, ESPN has thrown all kinds of talent at its NBA shows, including top anchor Stephen A. Smith.
Warner Bros. Discovery and the NBA are tied more closely than most leagues and media companies. Warner helps run the NBA’s cable network and its digital-media outlets. The relationship grew close under David Levy, the former president of the TV assets once known as Warner’s Turner unit.
During Tuesday’s conference, Zaslav suggested that “you could put the NBA on HBO Max” and serve as the NBA’s streaming play. Such a move, however, would undermine the economics of the company’s top cable networks, which rely on games from the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball to draw the big crowds favored by advertisers and distributors.
Others may also want to get on the court. Amazon in October unveiled a rights pact that will allow Prime Video to stream NBA games to its subscribers in Brazil. Prime Video gets to livestream as many as 87 live regular season NBA games in the country during the 2022-23 NBA season.
If Zaslav and Chapek want to keep playing games with the NBA, they will need to tread carefully.