SBJ/March 17-23, 2014/Media

NBA keeps media deal choices open

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Moving the NBA on TNT off of Thursday night?

Taking on a third TV partner?

Bringing the NBA’s digital rights back in-house?

These are three of the ideas that have been floated as the league starts the process of negotiating its next media deal.

TNT’s Thursday doubleheader will be competing regularly with NFL games.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The talks are still in their embryonic stages, so the ideas may never come to fruition. But the fact that such topics are even being contemplated illustrates how the league and its TV network partners are viewing the upcoming negotiations: Everything is on the table as both sides try to figure out how the NBA media landscape will look into the next decade.

One change the NBA is considering would see the league take back some digital rights that it licensed to Turner Sports as part of its last media deal, signed in 2008. Turner has jointly managed the league’s digital business out of Atlanta since then, and that operation has been a key feather in the cap of the company. Turner can point to the growth of NBA.com and NBA TV, in particular, as proof that the relationships is working. NBA TV has seen its ratings and distribution increase since the deal.

Still, NBA executives are looking at other digital opportunities, which could include bringing the rights back in-house or licensing them to other digital companies, such as YouTube. The NBA has launched YouTube channels around the D-League and Summer League.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said that he is interested in over-the-top carriage for some NBA programming.

Over the past couple of years, NASCAR and the PGA Tour pulled back their digital rights from Turner to execute their digital efforts internally.

The league also is looking into the possibility of carving out a new package that it would sell to another partner. ESPN and Turner’s exclusive negotiating window does not open for another year, but the league is considering whether it should hold back a package of games that it would sell to another media company, such as Fox Sports or NBC Sports Group. Any new deal would start with the 2016-17 season.

Perhaps the most unlikely move being discussed involves moving Turner’s “NBA on TNT” doubleheader off of Thursday nights. NBA owners are concerned about the NFL’s expansion of “Thursday Night Football” to a full season and are considering whether placing their games on another night, avoiding the highly rated NFL, would help their own TV ratings.

The NFL expanded its Thursday night package on NFL Network in 2012, four years after the NBA cut its most recent media deal. The NFL is further expanding its Thursday efforts this year, with a slate of games on broadcast network CBS set to air in the fall.

The NBA’s current TV partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner, have more than two years remaining on their eight-year, $7.5 billion deal. ESPN and Turner would not comment on the ideas being floated. Still, it’s likely the NBA’s new deal will include a wider array of digital rights. Over the past several decades, the NBA typically has been an early adopter in digital media circles, being the first league to embrace cable television and create its own TV channel.

The NBA’s two internal media committees — one featuring team owners, the other with team operators — have met separately in the past three weeks, and sources said the league’s digital rights are a big focus.

NBA spokesman Michael Bass said, “As always, our internal discussions are confidential.”

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins, who is a member of the six-member team executive committee, would not comment on any of the group’s negotiations but said their focus is on the digital future of the league.

“It’s about the next 10 years,” he said.

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