SBJ/Sept. 8-14, 2014/Media

NBA nearing massive media deals

Rights fees would more than double in new agreements with incumbents ESPN, Turner



The NBA and its network partners expect to reach an agreement in principle on new long-term media deals by the start of the regular season, according to sources on all sides of the discussions.

Talks have progressed so rapidly that details are emerging on a massive agreement that would see the league’s annual rights fee more than double, with ESPN and Turner combining to pay more than $2 billion per year on average. One source said ESPN already has committed to pay “well over” $1 billion per year, and Turner is not far behind for a media rights extension that would kick in with the 2016-17 season.

SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand, NBA reporter John Lombardo and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour talk about the impending NBA media rights agreements, what they mean, and who the winners and losers are.

As part of the current eight-year deals that end in June 2016, ESPN pays $485 million per year and Turner pays $445 million per year on average, bringing the league’s total take at just less than $1 billion per year.

But that figure would be dwarfed in a new deal that several sources pegged as an eight-year pact, though one source with knowledge of the talks said it ultimately could end up running nine years.

A final deal might not be signed or announced before the new season, but talks with ESPN and Turner are advanced enough that sources said there is little chance the NBA will carve out a third package for another network, like Fox Sports or NBC Sports. ESPN, in particular, has been adamant during negotiations that the NBA not develop a new package to sell to a competitive sports network, sources said.

ESPN will retain rights to the NBA Finals championship series, which will remain on ABC.
The NBA cannot talk to other networks until the middle of next year, when ESPN and Turner’s exclusive negotiating window runs out. Barring an unforeseen snag in the ongoing negotiations, all sides expect new deals to be signed well before that happens.

The new agreements are expected to mirror the current ones in many ways. While many believe the league and its TV partners could fashion an agreement by the season opener on Oct. 28 — with a formal announcement likely to come weeks or even months later — several issues are left to be resolved, such as what to do with live streaming rights. The NBA wants to explore the NFL’s model, where streaming rights are sold separately. The NFL sold streaming rights to Verizon as part of a four-year, $1 billion deal that runs through the 2017 season. ESPN and Turner are balking at such a plan, saying that they need streaming rights to the games they produce.

One network source called a separation of those rights a “nonstarter.”

Streaming rights have been part of every TV rights deal (other than in the NFL) for the past several years, and the cable industry’s TV Everywhere streaming push continues to be a priority for networks and distributors.

While the league wants to retain control over its live streaming rights, one source said any new deal will likely include additional digital rights to the networks.

“That includes more video highlights and digital packages,” the source said.

The league and networks have reached broad agreement on several points. ESPN will retain rights to the NBA Finals championship series, which will remain on ABC. Turner will keep its exclusive Thursday night franchise and NBA All-Star Game coverage.

Turner also will continue to manage the NBA’s digital assets, which include NBA TV, NBA League Pass and Over the past 18 months, other properties, such as NASCAR and the PGA Tour, have taken their digital rights back from Turner. But it would be more difficult for the NBA to take its digital rights back since they are combined with NBA TV and with League Pass, the league’s out-of-market package.

The new agreements would represent a coup for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who viewed the media deals as a top priority when he took over for longtime commissioner David Stern in February.

League and network executives declined to comment, but Silver hinted at the scope of the forthcoming deals at an industry conference in New York last week, saying, “The rights are going to go up, and go up a lot.”

Silver set up two committees — one made up of owners, the other of team presidents — to look into new ways to negotiate the TV rights.

The NBA clearly is benefiting from a sports rights marketplace that has remained red-hot for most of the past decade. ESPN and Turner executives made it clear that they wanted to stay in business with the NBA, which has one of the youngest audiences in sports TV — a trait TV networks value.

The networks’ current eight-year, $7.5 billion combined deal has been in place since 2007.

ESPN and Turner have used sports programming as a way to convince cable and satellite operators to pay higher license fees. Over the past several years, ESPN has brought several championship events to its schedule, like the Bowl Championship Series, the U.S. Open (tennis) and the British Open. Turner has invested in the MLB playoffs and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to get a higher fee from distributors. That strategy makes the NBA critical programming to have for both networks.

The sides started engaging at the start of the year, but talks did not start to pick up until the NBA playoffs in early June. Silver and Bill Koenig, league vice president of business affairs, are representing the NBA in the talks. ESPN President John Skipper and Turner Broadcasting System President David Levy have led talks for their respective networks.

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