Knowns, Unknowns In New NBA TV Pact

NEW YORK — Although pay- TV distributors are no doubt calculating what ESPN and TNT’s $24 billion renewal with the National Basketball Association will mean for their programming costs when the new nine-year contracts go into effect with the 2016-17 season, they’re likely keeping a wary eye on how an over-the-top service from the worldwide leader will affect their subscriber rolls.

The new deal keeps Fox and NBCUniversal out of the national NBA rights picture. ABC retains the NBA Finals, which surpassed baseball’s World Series in ratings in recent years, and TNT will continue to host the most playoff games.

But the biggest unknown concerns the OTT service ESPN will launch on the NBA’s behalf, in which the league will hold an equity stake. The service — for which no specific content details were disclosed — will not require a pay TV subscription.

The “new service is designed to reach mobile consumers with NBA content and potentially other sports properties, as well,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

ESPN president and John Skipper, noting only that a framework has been established, said “the preponderance of our deal is to invest in new product that goes on pay television.” He added: “There is no contradiction in continuing to enhance and buttress the current system while building new businesses and new ways to reach fans.”

One thing looks likely: Pay TV distributors, now absorbing almost $6 in monthly subscriber fees for ESPN, will be angry if there are mass defections to the OTT service, especially in light of the supposition that while viewers can get most movies, dramas and comedies elsewhere, live sports have been the province of an ecosystem involving broadcast and, to an increasing degree, pay TV networks.

ESPN and ABC will add 10 contests, lifting the regular-season roster to 100. Most probably, those will be on the cable side, meaning regional sports networks shouldn’t have to worry about losing full-telecast rights.

TNT, retaining exclusive Thursday- night doubleheaders, will add another dozen games after the All- Star break on a new night. Turner Broadcasting System president David Levy told Multichannel News the top prospects are Sunday or Monday.

ESPN’s monthly license fees are also likely to keep rising under the new deal, as are TNT’s (around $1.40).