NBA's exclusive TV rights negotiating window with ESPN, Warner expected to pass without a deal

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, #23, during the NBA game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers at Arena in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2024.

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The National Basketball Association’s exclusive media rights negotiating window with current partners Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery is likely to expire Monday without a new deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

Beginning next week, the NBA will be able to work on agreements for new partners to show packages of games. Amazon, Apple, YouTube TV, Comcast‘s NBCUniversal/Peacock and Netflix have all had preliminary conversations with the league expressing potential interest, CNBC reported last year. The exclusive negotiating window with the league’s incumbent partners officially ends Monday.

While no agreement is expected to be announced by the deadline, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery both continue to work on terms with the league, an NBA spokesperson confirmed. The NBA would like to bring in at least one new partner to serve as a flagship streamer, CNBC reported last year. The league wants a “robust” streaming partner that will use marketing and reach to make the games a priority on their platform, CNBC reported.

“We continue to have productive discussions with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery on a renewal of our media deals,” a league spokesperson said in a statement to CNBC.

Spokespeople for Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery declined to comment.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s TBS began airing NBA games in 1984, and TNT has shown NBA games since 1988. Disney’s ESPN and ABC have broadcast the NBA since 2002. The two companies have both publicly expressed a desire to renew with the NBA and have joined forces with Fox to launch a new streaming service geared to sports fans that don’t already pay for cable. That service will debut in the fall, the companies said earlier this year.

A more complex deal

The NBA is looking to double the $24 billion it generated from its previous media rights deal with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery by adding new partners and charging more for rights, CNBC reported last year. In 2014, during the NBA’s last negotiation, the league renewed its rights with Disney and Time Warner about five months before the end of its exclusive negotiating window. The NBA also doubled the price for its rights in that deal from its previous agreement.

This time, the discussions with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery are more complicated because of the likely addition of a third party. Both Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery aren’t eager to lose the rights they already have. Still, the league is looking for a large increase in fees, and neither company wants to carry the full burden of paying significantly more for what they already have, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

That allows for the league to bring in another party — or possibly even two more. The NBA could sell its new in-season tournament package of games to a separate media company than its primary new streaming partner, one of the people said.

The value of popular live sports programming has increased because of its value to advertisers. While ad-free subscription streaming services have increasingly become the home for popular scripted programming, sports are still predominately watched live, forcing viewers to see commercials.

Last year’s NBA playoffs was the most watched in 11 years across TNT, ABC, ESPN and NBA TV, according to Nielsen. The 2023-24 NBA regular season averaged 1.09 million viewers, up 1% from last year and the highest across-network average in four years, according to SportsMediaWatch.

Still, regular season viewership plateaued this year among standard cable and broadcast networks. Across ABC, ESPN and TNT, the average televised audience of 1.56 million was down 1% from last year’s 1.59 million and was the lowest in three years. TNT averaged 1.4 million viewers for its 65 regular season games, equaling the year prior, according to a Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson.

The first round of the NBA playoffs will start on Saturday.

Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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