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NBA, Networks Talk Contract Renewal

The opening round of the National Basketball Association playoffs is set to tip off, but the league is hoping to secure more than just viewers from ESPN and TNT during its two-month postseason run.

The NBA is currently in discussions with both networks to extend their current six-year rights deals, which expire after the 2007-08 season. Executives close to all three parties confirmed that the league wants to complete negotiations by the end of June.

But while network executives want to continue distributing NBA content, their sights are not only set on a package of live games for their linear networks, but also digital-content rights for their respective multiplatform holdings.

ESPN’s and ABC's current $2.5 billion deal and TNT’s $2.2 million agreement with the pro-hoops league do not afford the rights-holders the ability to show game highlights or other NBA-based video content on their respective broadband or mobile platforms. Instead, such content -- as well as the league's 800-game out-of-market live package -- is offered through NBA.com.

Both ESPN and TNT have made significant investments in the online and mobile-video arenas and have aggressively sought out and secured digital rights with their recent sports pacts.

ESPN currently presents live college-basketball and college-football games through its ESPN360 broadband-video service, which is sold directly to cable operators. The network will also offer Summer X Games, National Invitational Tournament college-basketball games, Arena Football League contests, IndyCar racing and NCAA baseball, softball and lacrosse events on mobile phones as part of its recent deal with Verizon Wireless' VCAST service.

“The key in more than one-half of what we discuss with the NBA in our current deal and our future deal is digital rights,” ESPN senior vice president of programming and acquisitions Len DeLuca said. “Basically the NBA consumer is a younger, male consumer who really likes new media and new technology. Our challenge -- and one that we are aggressively anxious to meet -- is to deliver NBA content on ESPN and ABC wherever the NBA consumer consumes.”

Digital rights are also a major part of TNT’s renewal discussions with the league. Its Turner Sports New Media division has produced broadband-video content for sports circuit Web sites it operates, such as PGA.com and NASCAR.com. In addition, the company proffers TNT Overtime, a broadband-video offering that runs on NBA.com and is based on the network’s NBA pregame and postgame shows.

While stopping short of calling digital rights a deal breaker, Turner Sports president David Levy said they are vitally important to the network as it courts an extension.

“What consumers are looking for today is mobility; they want to access programming when and where they want it,” he said. “TNT is one of the brands that they like and enjoy and, if I don't have NBA content on wireless, VOD [video-on-demand] and broadband, then we’re not living up to the brand. It has to be involved.”

NBA executives would only say that the league is talking with ESPN and TNT about contract extensions, declining to comment about the digital-rights issue.