SBJ/Feb. 3-9, 2014/Media

Digital properties, TV synergy will keep NBA with Turner

John Ourand
I’ll come out and say it now. Turner Sports will renew its NBA media deal this season for reasons that have nothing to do with Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and the rest of TNT’s Emmy-winning on-air talent.

Rather, it’s Turner’s management of the NBA’s vast digital properties that will carry the most sway with the league.
 
Of course, Turner will have to pay enough money to renew its rights deal. But Turner’s handling of the NBA’s digital business, which is now in its sixth season, has become so extensive, encompassing everything from mobile and social to broadband and the NBA’s out-of-market package. It would be difficult for the league to unwind that structure.

“I often liken it to marriage: Turner’s 30-year relationship with the NBA is a long time, and we’ve consistently evolved the relationship,” said Christina Miller, NBA Digital’s senior vice president and general manager.

My opinion that Turner will renew its NBA deal was solidified on a Thursday night in early December when I hung out backstage while the “Inside the NBA” crew produced its studio shows from their Atlanta studios.
Tucked away in a building that resembled a warehouse, the TNT crew produced their show from a massive state-of-the-art set.

TNT and NBA TV frequently share talent and resources, an example of how Turner is intertwined with the property.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
Even more impressive to me, though, was the fact that NBA TV’s main studio — another state-of-the-art structure with multiple sets — is just a few steps down the hall.

The proximity of the two studios for two channels demonstrated how closely intertwined Turner and NBA TV are, sharing talent and resources. TNT’s talent appears on NBA TV, and NBA TV’s talent appears on TNT. Turner has been very effective at putting its stamp on the NBA’s digital businesses, like NBA TV, while allowing the league to keep its branding on them.

While it would be difficult for the NBA to unwind this array of digital services from Turner, it’s not impossible or without precedent. NASCAR and the PGA Tour already have taken their digital rights back from Turner. In 2013, NASCAR bought back its digital rights from Turner and took over management of NASCAR.com. The same year, the PGA Tour opted not to renew its digital deal with Turner Sports, taking control of sales, marketing and operations back in-house.

But Miller stressed those two relationships were different than Turner’s long-standing ties to the NBA.
“With PGA Tour, it was PGA Tour’s website. With NASCAR, we had six races and we were managing their website,” Miller said. “On the NBA side of things, one of the differences is that it’s all-encompassing.”

Expect Turner to pitch the NBA on the growth of its digital business. NBA TV is in nearly 60 million homes. Three years ago, it was in 53 million homes. “Early on, we were about spreading our content across more screens than pretty much everybody else,” Miller said. “The last two years have been our highest-rated seasons for NBA TV. There’s definitely been growth there.”

Viewership is doing well. NBA TV saw its biggest all-time audience this season when the Heat played the Pacers on Dec. 10. The game averaged 920,000 viewers. But Turner also will pitch NBA Digital’s growth in broadband, mobile and social.

“We’re growing alongside the industry,” Miller said. “We have the youngest average audience out of any sports network. That alone means that our growth in broadband, mobile and social tends to be greater because we cater to early adopters.”

As for the rest of the NBA’s media package, I expect ESPN to renew its relationship. ESPN executives have been public about their desire to keep the NBA, and they certainly have deep enough pockets to cut a deal.

It would not be surprising to see either Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network pick up a small package. Both companies have deep relationships with the NBA through their regional sports networks, and both have national sports networks that need to grow. I give Fox Sports the nod to pick up a national package, probably on Saturday nights, where it could use production from one of its regional sports networks.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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