Cue up John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” – “The NBA on NBC” may be returning, if NBC Sports gets its way.
Comcast‘s NBCUniversal is preparing to make a strong bid to win back National Basketball Association broadcast rights more than 20 years after the company lost them to Disney and Turner Sports, according to people familiar with the matter.
NBCUniversal executives have informed the NBA of their interest, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. NBC Sports wants a package that would include playoff games to air on NBC’s broadcast network, two of the people said. Some regular season games could be exclusive to NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock. The NBA could also decide to force media companies to simulcast all games on streaming to increase reach, the people said.
Apple and Amazon have also expressed interest to the NBA in buying carved-out streaming packages, said people familiar with the matter. Amazon currently has a deal with the NBA allowing it to stream games in Brazil.
No formal discussions can take place with non-incumbent bidders unless Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns Turner Sports, and Disney agree to waive their exclusive negotiation windows, which end in April 2024, according to people familiar with the matter. Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery own the NBA rights until the end of the 2024-2025 season — more than two more years from now. It’s possible the NBA could simply re-up with both existing parties and never open negotiations to outside bidders. That’s what happened in 2014, the league’s most recent renewal.
But that’s not likely to happen this time as streaming has taken over as the dominant distribution method of TV watching, the people said. The NBA is likely to carve out one or two new packages for bidders, pushing their media rights partners from two to either three or four, two of the people said.
Disney is expected to bid on a package of rights for ESPN, ESPN+ and ABC, said the people.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s interest in the NBA is murkier. CEO David Zaslav said in November, “We don’t have to have the NBA.” Turner’s relationship with the league features the long-running “Inside the NBA” studio show, hosted by Ernie Johnson and former NBA stars Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery sports head Luis Silberwasser will likely use this year to decide what type of future relationship they want with the NBA, according to a person familiar with their thinking.
“We know NBA programming has tremendous value and expect there to be significant interest in our media rights from both existing and prospective partners,” said an NBA spokesperson.
Spokespeople for NBCUniversal, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Amazon declined to comment. A spokesperson at Apple couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
NBC’s NBA pitch
It’s possible NBCUniversal will be directly competing with Warner Bros. Discovery to be the league’s second traditional TV partner, along with ESPN. NBCUniversal can offer a broadcast network (NBC) to air NBA games if pay TV providers begin dropping cable networks, such as TNT and TBS, that run mostly reruns of scripted programming when sports aren’t on. Comcast also owns Sky, which could give the NBA another international broadcast outlet.
“What you have today is programmers selling us content at increasingly higher prices and asking us to distribute that to largely all of our customers, and at the same time, selling that exact same content either into streaming platforms or creating a direct-to-consumer product themselves at a much lower cost,” said Chris Winfrey, CEO of Charter, the second largest U.S. cable provider, in comments published by CNBC last week. “Our willingness to continue to fund that for programmers when that content is available for free elsewhere is declining. That means within the linear video construct, you’ll see an increasing number of distributors deciding it no longer makes sense to carry certain content.”
Warner Bros. Discovery can counter with a larger global streaming service — the combined HBO Max/Discovery+ (likely to be called Max) — which launches later this year. Warner Bros. Discovery ended September with about 95 million streaming subscribers, far outpacing Peacock’s 20 million, which are U.S.-only. The NBA has been partners with Turner Sports for nearly 40 years.
Many NBA fans fondly remember “The NBA on NBC” for its dramatic “Roundball Rock” theme song and era-defining broadcasts of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls winning six titles during the 1990s. NBC aired its last NBA games during the 2002 finals, when the Los Angeles Lakers swept the New Jersey Nets. Games have been split between Disney’s ESPN and ABC and Turner Sports’ TNT and TBS for the last two decades. ABC airs the NBA Finals.
The NBA’s value
The NBA offers live programming that’s valuable to advertisers and routinely commands millions of viewers. Regular season NBA games across ABC, ESPN and TNT are averaging 1.6 million viewers this season. That’s flat from a year ago, even as the total number of U.S. homes that subscribe to cable TV has fallen from 70 million to 62 million, according to NBA data.
NBA rights are coming up for renewal while global media companies are cutting costs, which could pressure the the league to lower its expectations on the size of a price increase. Warner Bros. Discovery laid off thousands of employees and cut billions in content costs last year. Disney announced last week it plans to eliminate 7,000 jobs and cut $5.5 billion in costs, including $3 billion in non-sports content savings. The NFL obtained 40% to 80% increases for its media rights when it renewed its deal for 11 years in 2021.
It’s too early to say how much the NBA will be able to increase revenue from its new TV deal, but initial suggestions of a 200% increase from about $25 billion to more than $70 billion over nine years are probably too optimistic, according to people familiar with the matter. An annual increase closer to 100% may be more likely, given secular declines in the linear pay TV and streaming businesses that are still losing billions of dollars each year, two of the people said.
WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is CNBC’s parent company.