New NBA TV Contracts Leave Fox Out in the Cold

Fox wanted to someday challenge ESPN for sports network superiority, but those prospects just took a major hit.

Fox Sports didn’t mince words last year, when, ahead of the launch of its year-old cable sports network Fox Sports 1, executives weren’t shy about their desire to take down ESPN, the self-described “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

On Monday, that task got even tougher when the NBA announced that it had reached new nine-year media rights agreements to continue with its current partners in ESPN and Turner Sports.

In announcing the deal at a press conference Monday morning, ESPN president John Skipper intimated part of the reason for reaching new deals well ahead of the expiration of its current contract – which runs through the 2015-16 season – was that it kept the popular league out of other network’s hands, namely Fox.

“We were not ambivalent about wanting to renew this,” said Skipper when asked why ESPN struck a new deal with so much time left on its current contract. ESPN and Turner also held an exclusive negotiating window that wasn’t going to lift until the middle of next year.

After the press conference, Skipper categorized the negotiations with the NBA as “within the context” of there not being a third national TV partner.

The deals leaves Fox shut out of the NBA, something that executives didn’t hide their interest in acquiring and had hoped to make a key programming staple for Fox Sports 1, which has struggled to gain much of a foothold in the sports network landscape in its year-plus of being on the air.

Fox Sports 1 currently has rights to college basketball from the Big 12, Pac-12 and Conference USA and college football from those three conferences, as well as the Big Ten conference championship game. The net is completing its debut season of Major League Baseball, punctuated by coverage of the National League side of the playoffs.

Fox’s biggest upcoming property now is soccer’s World Cup, which begins next summer with the Women’s World Cup from Canada. This year’s men’s World Cup from Brazil drew record soccer ratings to ESPN and ABC, though the TV-friendly time zones certainty helped goose ratings; the 2018 Cup will take place in Russia, which will no doubt put a dent into any ratings momentum gained from this year.

Soccer programming will also include UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and the CONCACAF Champions League.

But the biggest sporting events – aside from airing on over-the-air broadcast networks – air mainly on ESPN. Aside from numerous NBA games – and many playoff telecasts including exclusive coverage of one of the conference finals – the network has the highly popular Monday Night Football and will air the first-ever College Football playoff in January.

With the NBA deal, all four major professional sports leagues are locked into their TV contracts into the next decade. The Big Ten conference’s current deal with ESPN expires in 2016 and the English Premier League’s pact with NBC Sports has one more year after the current season.