Analysis: NBA Rights Deals Leave Unanswered Questions

ESPN, League's OTT Service Could Alter Affiliate Game
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There are a number of knowns with the NBA's lucrative renewal announced last week, Incumbents ESPN and TNT will be presenting games and related content on myriad platforms into the middle of the next decade.

By paying a combined $24 billion, starting with the 2016-17 season and continuing through the 2024-25 campaign, The Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner have kept Fox and Comcast/NBCU out of the national media rights for pro hoops.  ABC will remain the home of The NBA Finals, which have surpassed the World Series in ratings in recent years, while TNT will continue to host the most playoff games.

There are also plenty of unknowns most notably the over-the-top service that ESPN will launch and in which the league will hold an equity stake. The service will not require a subscription to a cable, satellite or telco video subscription.

Commissioner Adam Silver at the Oct. 6 press conference in New York said the “new service is designed to reach mobile consumers with NBA content and potentially other sports properties, as well.”

ESPN president and John Skipper, noting only that a framework has been established, pointed out that “the preponderance of our deal is to invest in new product that goes on pay television…There is no contradiction in continuing to enhance and buttress the current system while building new businesses and new ways to reach fans. We think they are complementary. We applaud the NBA for being a very forward‑thinking league and helping us do that across all of our platforms."

With Washington Wizards owner and NBA media committee chairman Ted Leonisis talking about the surge in worldwide mobility and 2.5 billion Internet connections, some were left with the impression that the OTT could be a global gambit.

ESPN officials later in the week said the OTT service would be a U.S. play only, but there were no further details -- as to whether it would function as an out-of-market service or otherwise. It remains unclear if the content would encompass only ESPN’s NBA action -- and how many other pro hoops games from across the league's slate -- or extend to the full gamut of the worldwide leader's portfolio.

What seems likely: Pay-tv distributors, who currently pay 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 access to most movies, dramas and comedies elsewhere, live sports have been the province of an ecosystem involving broadcast and to an ever increasing degree, pay-TV programmers.

The following is a scorecard touching on a number of other deal points, outlining what's known and what remains uncertain at this juncture.

More games: ESPN and ABC will add 10 contests, lifting their combined regular-season roster to 100, with most likely slated on the cable side. That means regional sports networks shouldn’t have to worry about losing full-telecast rights. The worldwide leader will also add D-League and summer league action and extended its WNBA pact to be co-terminus with the broader NBA pact.

TNT, retaining its exclusive Thursday night doubleheaders, will after the All-Star break add another dozen games with significant playoff implications on a new night. Turner Broadcasting System Inc. president David Levy told Multichannel News after the press conference that it was looking at Sunday or Monday.

License fees:  ESPN and TNT’s (around $1.40) monthly license fees will continue to rise under the new deal. Just as ESPN executives have always maintained that one property doesn’t determine the rate, Levy, noting this deal would not trigger a surcharge, said TNT’s current license fee reflects the value of the NBA and that would be the case going forward.  His boss Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes has talked up securing higher fees for the Turner portfolio of networks and retaining the ratings-ascendant pro hoops league should help accomplish that.

NBA TV: NBA TV will add a handful of games, lifting its schedule to 100 regular-season contests annually. Under the new deal,Turner also willserve as the principal affiliate negotiatior. While Silver is confident that NBA TV will benefit, it's way too early to determine how much the network will grow beyond its current 60-million base via its inclusion within the Turner portfolio of services. As Levy said, it's, in part, a function of opportunities synching up with contract lengths

Digital: The programmers retain their TVE rights across their myriad platforms.  ESPN is slated to add some 750 hours of linear/digital content that will make the NBA --- like the NFL -- a year-round business in Bristol and beyond.

Turner, which will continue to manage NBA Digital, including NBA TV, NBA.com, NBA Mobile, NBA League Pass, WNBA.com and NBADLeague.com., can add more video-focused content to its Bleacher Report online service. It’s unclear if that will manifest as NBA game streaming.

Labor: What’s known is that Cleveland’s LeBron James and Brookyn’s  Deon Williams are already beating the owners-can’t-cry-poverty-anymore, and the- players-need-a-higher-percentage-of basketball- related- income drum.  What’s unknown is the exact minute in 2017 when the players will opt of the current collective bargaining agreement and another NBA work stoppage/ lockout/strike will ensue.

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