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Handicapping the new NBA television rights deals

In this week's edition of Sports Business Journal, John Ourand and John Lombardo report that the NBA wants to begin talks this summer with its two TV partners, ESPN and Turner Sports about new deals. Now the two deals with the incumbents expire after the 2015-16 season, but the NBA wants to strike while the iron is still hot. Knowing that Major League Baseball, the NFL and most of the major BCS college conferences saw huge rights deals over the last few years, the NBA wants to join in before the rights bubble bursts.

In addition, with an increased field of national cable sports networks, the NBA knows there will be more interested parties in its games than when the last TV contract was signed in 2007. ESPN has been with the NBA since 2002 and Turner's partnership dates back to the mid-1980's when the NBA was originally on TBS. 

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With the talks beginning this summer, the NBA hopes to have a new contract in place by the time current NBA Commissioner David Stern transitions to new Head Honcho Adam Silver next summer. 

Like the NFL, the NBA saw record ratings in 2011-12, but a slight decrease in the 2012-13 season. That will not temper the enthusiasm of the bids for the NBA. As he leaves, Stern is hoping to at least double the $930 million in rights fees the league receives from ESPN and Turner. And you know neither company will allow one of their signature sports properties go without a fight. 

So with that, let's handicap the new rights deal and see where the chips may fall.

INCUMBENTS

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TURNER SPORTS

Turner is firmly entrenched with the NBA. As mentioned, this partnership goes back to the 1984-85 season. The NBA began airing on TNT in 1988 and has continued non-stop. Through the years, Turner's relationship has expanded to running NBA Digital which includes NBA.com, NBA Mobile and NBA TV. In addition, NBA TV is operated from Turner Sports headquarters so it will take a huge bid from one of the other cable sports networks to wrest this portion of the NBA contract away. 

Turner has given us the Emmy Award-winning Inside the NBA as well as multi-Emmy Award winning studio analyst Charles Barkley. The NBA has enjoyed its partnership with Turner and I don't think the league is ready to give it up just yet. The only thing missing from the NBA on TNT portfolio is the NBA Finals. Now that Turner has the NCAA Final Four, perhaps the NBA will reward TNT by allowing the network to air part or all of the Finals in the new contract. We'll see if it happens. But even so, the NBA on TNT should continue in the next contract and into the next decade.

ODDS: 5-2. Turner is a very strong candidate to renew.

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ESPN/ABC

Disney has been a partner with the Association since the 2002-03 season. It seems every season, the network has been tweaking either its game announcing or studio show in attempts to match or surpass TNT. And while the Mike Breen-Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Tirico-Hubie Brown teams are good, NBA Countdown seems to continually be in a state of flux. No matter, people watch for the games and not the announcers. When this current contract ends, the NBA will have been on ESPN and ABC longer than when the games were on NBC. Just a little piece of trivia for you.

ESPN has totally committed to the NBA through TV and radio. One would expect that even if ESPN loses the TV contract, it would at least remain on radio, however, basing on its MLB contract, the Worldwide Leader would try to tie both TV and radio together as a way to maintain its relationship. 

Of the two TV contracts, this might be the most vulnerable, but it will be hard to take this contract away.

ODDS: 3-1. ESPN loves its NBA and an outside party will have to really pony up to lure the NBA away from the Bristol Bill Simmonses.

POTENTIAL SUITORS

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CBS/CBS SPORTS NETWORK

CBS aired the NBA from 1973-74 through the 1989-90 season and some old school fans wish the games were back there. To be honest, the NBA on CBS theme is probably the second best in history.

CBS Sports seems to shut down after The Masters into August, but it seems to be content to stay pat with its current lineup of the NFL, SEC football, NCAA Tournament and the PGA. One would think CBS would want some inventory for CBS Sports Network which has Arena Football, professional lacrosse, rodeo and various other niche sports during the summer months, but it doesn't appear to be interested in regaining the NBA.

There's the CBS/Turner consortium for the NCAA Tournament, but asides from airing a Christmas Day game and with CBS' commitments to college basketball and the PGA Tour, there isn't much room for more than four or five regular season games and the Finals. Beyond that, CBS is not seen as a full-fledged NBA media partner. 

ODDS: 1,000-1. CBS is happy with its lineup and doesn't want to bid on expensive sports properties except for the NFL and NCAA Tournament. 

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FOX/FOX SPORTS 1/FOX SPORTS 2

Fox and the new FS1/FS2 combo are going to add some spice to the negotiations. If either ESPN or Turner decide to let their exclusive negotating window with the NBA lapse, Fox is going to be ready with a lot of cash to lure the Association into its fold. Fox Sports has not aired the NBA in its history. While local Fox Sports Net affiliates across the country have contracts with individual teams, one would have to think that armed with two new national sports cable networks ready to debut in August, what would be better than to have some NBA games starting in 2016-17? 

As it stands now, Fox Sports 1 has college basketball, NASCAR and some UFC bouts for the winter months, but to sustain the networks, the NBA would be ideal and a huge feather in the Fox cap. 

Also, in its fall schedule, Fox announced "Fox Sports Saturday" in primetime. For the upcoming season, this will be filled with college football, college basketball, NASCAR, UFC and MLB. There's plenty of room for some regular season NBA as well as playoff games and NBA Final broadcasts. 

The NBA has to be intrigued by having Fox as potential suitor. 

ODDS: 8-1. If either ESPN or Turner fall, Fox is a huge favorite to pick up the NBA.

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NBC SPORTS GROUP

Yes, the NBA on NBC theme is remembered rather fondly by your humble writer as well as many on the staff of Awful Announcing. After losing the NBA in 2002, NBC tried to replace it with Arena Football (remember?) and had to wait until the mid-aughts with the NHL. With NBC firmly entrenched with the NHL and running the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April through June concurrently with the NBA Postseason, the NBA would want a network with those months free. Sure, NBC could use CNBC for any conflicts as it does with the NHL now, but it would be a big mess trying to find the games.

NBC would love to get the NBA away from ESPN, but one has to question if it could make both the NBA and NHL happy. And the NHL left ESPN after feeling jilted by the Worldwide Leader in favor of the Association. 

ODDS: 20-1. The NHL on NBC doesn't allow for much room for the NBA.

And finally, a dark horse.

beIN SPORT

Who? Yes, beIN Sport, a network that launched just last year in the US, it's owned and operated by Al-Jazeera. While it has some soccer, beIN wants to expand its portfolio and air a major US sports property. Its distribution is rather sparse right now, but it has some deep pockets. And before you laugh beIN Sport off, it already has a relationship with the NBA in France so the league is quite familiar with the network. 

Let's be honest, the NBA won't be going there in the next contract, but you'll be hearing more about beIN Sport in the years to come.

ODDS: 5,000 to 1. No shot right now, but it will be in the hunt in the future.

So that's a quick look at the upcoming NBA rights talks. We'll find out the winners in a year's time.

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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