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New NBA Deal for ESPN/ABC, TNT a Multiplatform Fast-Break

Under their new eight-year multiplatform agreement with the National Basketball Association, ESPN/ABC and TNT have expanded their games.

While the new eight-season contracts -- which published reports have pegged collectively at some $7.6 billion, including fees from the league-owned NBA TV -- essentially replicate ESPN’s and TNT’s current regular-season and postseason schedules, the deals enable the networks to stream live games on their air and migrate other NBA-oriented content to an array of other platforms on live, delayed and on-demand basis.

The parties would not address the cost of the rights.

Covering the 2008-09 through the 2015-16 NBA seasons, the pact calls for ESPN to televise up to 75 regular-season games, primarily on Wednesday and Friday nights, while TNT will continue its exclusive Thursday-night doubleheader telecasts and retain rights to the NBA All-Star Game.

During the postseason, ABC will televise up to 15 games, including The Finals. ESPN will hold the rights to 29 playoff games, including alternating conference-final exclusivity with TNT, as the drama network retains the rights to up to 52 playoff tilts per season.

The league’s current $4.6 billion, six-year contract with its TV partners expires after the 2007-08 season.

“The broadcasting landscape in terms of these [agreements] will look very much the same with respect to what appears on the networks and our scheduling,” NBA commissioner David Stern said during a telephone conference call announcing the deal. “And the contracts that we entered into provide for an additional robust grant of digital rights to enhance the experience of our fans in ways that ESPN, ABC and TNT have done to some small degree with our properties, but will do to a much greater degree.”

During the press conference, Stern stated that the value of the broadcast rights continue to exceed those in the digital realm. However, he noted that the length of the deal would help the league’s partners to monetize their investments in these new technologies.

For the total sports network, the deal will allow it to present games and other content, including NBA-related segments in SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption, across 17 platforms. The lineup: ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic; the networks’ respective HD channels; digital platforms, ESPN360, ESPN Mobile TV and ESPN podcasts; and ESPNU, ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes.

ESPN International -- comprising game and studio programming for its Latin America territory (South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean), the Middle East, Africa and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) and studio programming in Europe -- is also covered by the new contract.

Relative to Turner Broadcasting System, the games aired by TNT can also be simulcast to wireless and broadband properties and delivered to video-on-demand platforms shortly after their original telecasts. Turner can also supplement its TNT telecasts with interactive online elements such as select camera angles, statistic feeds and complementary video. TNT, which scored an NBA fantasy-game license, also holds the right to distribute ancillary content -- highlights and studio shows -- on digital platforms, as well as exclusive broadband-produced content.

The pact also gives ESPN/ABC and TNT the rights to platforms that have yet to be developed.

But the NBA certainly won’t be left out in the new platform gold rush: Stern pointed out that under the internal heading of “NBA Digital,” the league holds digital rights to more than 1,000 games per season.

Noting that by the end of the new eight-year deal, HD will be the standard TV format, Stern envisions NBA fans watching games with the benefits of statistical, archival and biographical information, as well as self-directional options relative to different camera angles.

“What we now see as futuristic will be commonplace by the time this contract is renewed after eight years,” he added.

In the meantime, executives at TNT and ESPN both insisted that the deals will produce plenty of green.

“The overall financial picture is where we need this to be,” ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper said. “We’re quite confident that [the NBA deal] will have great value for all of our properties.”

To that end, he explained that sold-out ads accompanying online video starts -- 3.2 million over the course of the recently completed NBA season -- carry CPMs (cost per thousand homes) that are “consistent” with those for ESPN’s TV CPMs. Skipper said ESPN, which has launched seven new platforms since its current NBA deal tipped off, could add another 5-10 over the life of the new contract.

Turner Sports president David Levy -- who on the conference call said there wouldn’t be any loss leaders relative to the various rights Turner will hold under the new pact -- emphasized later in an interview that Turner wouldn’t have engaged in a deal of this magnitude “unless it would be profitable across all platforms.” He noted that the media landscape of today will look vastly different in “2011, 12, 13 and 14,” with digital assets becoming even more prevalent and key relative to advertisers, branding, viewers and consumers over the term of the deal.

Levy said the negotiations on Turner’s far-reaching deal took nine months. “This was a very complex deal. It’s not easy figuring out how long things could stay up on digital before rights revert back to the NBA,” he added. “The NBA has always been an innovator, and this will not only serve as model for future sports rights negotiations, but for [general] programming deals in terms of digital extensions.”

Skipper, also speaking to the deal’s intricacies, was ecstatic that “broadcast, cable, international, radio and digital rights all were done at one time.”

Speaking of international, Skipper said ESPN expanded its NBA game and studio programming presence in a number of territories. Moreover, there was “a significant increase” relative to its digital presence with the league abroad. “There was a big step up here,” he said, noting that “generally, where ESPN holds game rights, the same digital rights apply.”

The deal comes just weeks after the conclusion of the league’s lowest-rated Finals -- the San Antonio Spurs’ sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Both Turner and ESPN, though, expressed confident in the NBA’s long-term Nielsen health. During the conference call, Levy said that over the first five seasons of the current rights deal, TNT’s ratings rose 17% for the regular season and 19% during the playoffs. In an interview, he later addressed the cyclical nature of ratings and noted that over the life of the deal, stronger teams in big markets like New York, Boston and Philadelphia could return to the league’s upper echelon, bringing more viewers with them.

He added that the new contract also affords TNT the right to add one more team appearance on both an exclusive (to seven) and nonexclusive (to 10) basis. As such, TNT can add games showcasing such popular clubs as the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, he added.

Skipper said that with the 28 Finals games ABC has telecast under the current contract, the alphabet network has won the night on 27 of them with key male demos and triumphed on 22 relative to overall viewership.