NBA League Pass Photo via NBA. Edit by Liam McGuire, Comeback Media.

As the NBA nears deals with ESPN, Amazon, and NBCUniversal in a media rights package that could double or triple its broadcast revenue, the fate of NBA League Pass has largely gone unreported.

League Pass is operated by NBA Digital, a partnership between the league and TNT Sports that also includes ownership of NBA TV, the league’s cable network. This is why you see TNT personalities like Taylor Rooks and Jared Greenberg hosting NBA Digital content. Should Warner Bros. Discovery lose out on NBA rights as projected, it is unlikely the league would continue to work with its longtime production partner on the digital side.

The league’s online services changed a lot over the past few years. Fans used to pay around $300 a year for League Pass, which allows them to stream live, out-of-market games straight to their devices or watch them as a cable package add-on. Today, the league charges less than $100 per season. In April 2020, the NBA announced a collaboration with Microsoft to make the computing company its official cloud and AI partner. The agreement transferred the delivery of live-streamed games to Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform.

Meanwhile, the NBA has increased its oversight of its digital products over time. In September 2022, it relaunched the NBA App in collaboration with Microsoft, which allowed fans to use their “NBA ID” to customize their digital experience across league platforms. Microsoft’s AI programs help deliver that customized content, as well as betting and fantasy information, to users.

In addition to the technological changes at NBA Digital, the league’s strategy with its digital platforms has broadened. The league produces app-exclusive content with basketball influencers and content creators, like “Coaches’ Corner” with former assistant coach Steve Jones Jr. Fans can also watch games of the league’s future faces, like Victor Wembanyama and Cooper Flagg, live on the NBA App and NBA YouTube channel.

It would appear the NBA is trending toward moving a significant portion of its digital content production in-house. By partnering with Microsoft, the league leveled up around speed and customization, but strategy and delivery can be owned by the league. The streaming version of League Pass may solely be an NBA product going forward.

Still, League Pass also exists as an add-on to cable packages and streaming subscriptions. You can add dozens of League Pass channels to your DirecTV package or buy it through Prime Video and Roku. Outside the United States, major media conglomerates like Rakuten and Movistar offer the service to basketball fans. It’s hard to parse who currently manages those relationships and who would in a WBD-less future for the NBA.

This is where it should be mentioned that currently, League Pass sucks. It crashes constantly and often bugs out within minutes. It’s so bad that an X account is dedicated solely to responding to angry fans online questioning unintelligible error codes and frustrating glitches.

Part of what the NBA was reportedly pursuing in its new package was global growth. That’s likely why many, including Ringer founder and Spotify executive Bill Simmons, predicted the league would roll League Pass into its new deal with Amazon. The NFL benefited tremendously from gathering user data after moving its Sunday Ticket product to YouTube and DAZN (outside the U.S.). However, reports around the Prime Video deal involve the conference finals, NBA Cup and Play-In Tournament, but no mention of League Pass.

That means there is either more news coming, or the league is going it alone.

Either way, fans will feel the change. If the TNT Sports relationship goes away, new personalities will be featured on-air. The NBA TV cable network may disappear completely in time. And any hope that the finicky, crash-prone League Pass service will improve could evaporate.

For the NBA, the benefit of keeping ownership and operation of its digital services in-house is obvious. The money stays in-house, too. But a company like YouTube, DAZN or Prime Video knows the business and knows the consumer already. The league does not. Unlike Major League Baseball, which saw the future with BAMTech and struck gold in the early-2000s (and could use that platform to launch a national streaming service next year), the NBA is not known for its in-house technological capabilities. It got left behind. It is a live sports entertainment company, not a tech company.

Beyond that, it’s not sure if the move pays off. YouTube pays the NFL roughly $2 billion annually for Sunday Ticket (though it had to cut prices in year one of the deal). If the NBA got even half that, it would be an enormous boon that would be hard to top on their own.

Much like moving playoff games to streaming or losing a beloved accoutrement like Inside the NBA, the league’s digital content strategy could be a small step forward on the revenue side and two steps back from a brand and audience-building perspective. As mentioned, diehards hate League Pass. This new broadcast package was an opportunity for the league to do two things at once: level up the service while getting more out of it as a business.

Instead, the league risks frustrating fans and air-balling operations of its own service.

Any smart streaming company could surely swoop in and make a value play before negotiations wrap. We know from Peacock’s NFL game and even Disney’s IPL cricket rights in India that sports fans can bolster streaming services, even if they aren’t familiar with the platform or its content yet. Why would YouTube, Netflix or Apple not poke around? Deputy commissioner Mark Tatum previously emphasized the league’s desire to think globally with this new deal. Those companies could offer a platform for NBA fans worldwide rather than breaking up the package like the NFL did with DAZN. Add in the possibility of wooing new League Pass subscribers with positive publicity if you can fix the broken tech, and it’s easy to craft an optimistic view as a business.

The NBA does not appear to want to sell League Pass rights off in this round of negotiations, but money talks. A mutually beneficial deal still seems within reach.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.