Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch spoke at the SVB MoffettNathanson Technology, Media and Telecom Conference Wednesday, and two of his most notable comments were on sports properties Fox doesn’t have. That would be the NBA and Thursday Night Football. On the NBA, Fox had received a bit of minor discussion as a potential NBA broadcast partner (the league’s current deal with ESPN and WBD ends after 2024-25), but Murdoch made it pretty clear they’re not pursuing the league:
"We are highly unlikely to bid on the NBA," Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch during MoffettNathanson investor call.
— Alex Sherman (@sherman4949) May 17, 2023
Here’s that full quote, via Ed Dixon at Sports Pro Media:
“I hate to disappoint [the league], but we are highly unlikely to bid on the NBA,” said Murdoch, who was speaking at the SVB MoffettNathanson Technology, Media and Telecom Conference.
“We look at our sports portfolio and try to balance it overall. And in doing so, I think it’s highly unlikely that we would bid on the NBA.”
It probably makes sense that Fox isn’t going after the NBA. There’s strong interest in retaining it from Disney, there appears to be a decent level of interest from WBD (although that’s varied over time), and the likes of NBC, Amazon, and Apple have all been floated as potential further partners. That’s a crowded field of bidders, and the eventual deals are expected to be massive. And Fox has some challenges against those other companies, as they’re small (but maybe not neutral) in comparison, especially following the 2019 completion of their sale of many of their assets to Disney. They also don’t have a paid streaming platform; they have the free, advertising-supported Tubi, which Dixon notes has 54 million users, but it hasn’t been used much for sports yet and doesn’t have the same monetization potential as other companies’ paid streaming services. So it’s logical that Fox isn’t too eager to dive into the NBA bidding wars.
On the streaming front, though, that was the other notable thing Murdoch had to say Wednesday. There, while talking up the reach of the Fox broadcast network for live sports, he took a shot at the NFL for moving Thursday Night Football to Amazon’s Prime Video:
Fox Corp. Lachlan Murdoch say's Amazon's reach for Thursday Night Football is down 42% from when it was on Fox. "If I'm an NFL owner, that's a disaster for me."
— Joe Flint (@JBFlint) May 17, 2023
Yes, there’s lessened reach with streaming versus broadcast TV. But the NFL is also getting $1 billion annually from Amazon, 35 percent more than the $650 million they were getting from Fox for Thursday Night Football. And that’s similar to the $110 million they’re getting from putting a playoff game on Peacock. Streaming services have to pay a premium at this point given that they have less to offer than broadcast from a reach perspective, but many of them are willing to do so. (And this is not that different from the premium ESPN paid to get NFL games on cable for the first time back in 2006.) Murdoch (seen at top ahead of Super Bowl LI in 2017) did have more to say to talk up his network’s reach, though:
“Overall, why would sports leagues choose to partner with us as opposed to people with bigger balance sheets – maybe not [a] more healthy balance sheet – but bigger balance sheets?” said Murdoch.
“The answer to that is really reach, right? Broadcast is still the best place for sports and, frankly, if I were an NFL owner or an NBA owner or a team owner, I would want to be on broadcast TV.”
Murdoch isn’t wrong there on some levels. Especially in this era of increased cord-cutting, there’s been an added emphasis on putting big sports events on broadcast TV channels accessible outside of multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) packages. And some owners are going that way, most notably Mat Ishbia, who’s trying to take the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury local broadcasts from Bally Sports Arizona (formerly a Fox RSN) to Gray Television’s broadcast channels (although Bally parent Diamond is suing to stop that).
And there’s certainly plenty of appeal for leagues in working with broadcast Fox, as seen by their new Big Ten deal, their continued NFL and MLB deals, and more. And they do have a very sports-focused strategy at their broadcast network, especially following the sale of their TV studio to Disney in that overall deal.
Teams and leagues are going to continue to explore streaming, though. And that’s especially true while the money is good and while linear cable networks continue to see cord-cutting declines. That reach on streaming is much lower for now, but that gap may not always be as large as it currently is.
But for now, while some things will move to streaming, there is still a big role for broadcast TV. And Fox has made it clear they’re going to continue to focus on sports on their broadcast network, so they’ll be a player here, and Murdoch is right to talk up their reach as a strength. At the same time, though, streaming is an important part of the equation, and it’s part of why those other companies are more interested in bidding for NBA packages than Fox is. Their no streaming, only broadcast approach has advantages, especially considering how much companies are spending on content for these streaming services right now (by contrast, Fox is spending money on running a football league). But it has disadvantages as well.
[Sports Pro Media; photo from John David Mercer/USA Today Sports]