Charles Barkley with a TNT microphone. Photo Credit: TNT.

With interviews of prominent network figures that actually happen, there’s usually significant overlap between the talent’s willingness to do the interview and network public relations figures’ desire to have them do that. And when there is an imbalance, it’s often when PR is more eager about an interview than the talent in question. But Charles Barkley’s media tour over the last weeks about the uncertain future of Inside The NBA seems to be an exception to that.

This comes with TNT Sports’ parent company Warner Bros. Discovery seemingly set to lose NBA rights. The league is reportedly finalizing deals for the 2025-26 season and beyond with ESPN, NBC, and Amazon, likely leaving WBD on the outside looking in after their co-exclusive negotiating window expired and with their reported matching option seemingly not set to be accepted. (None of that is certain yet, though, and there still may be legal fights.) And that raises major questions about Inside The NBA: could the NBA still somehow carve out a small package for TNT, or could the show move to Amazon’s Prime Video or to NBC (either as an independent production or in a more standard deal), and would the cast stay together if they moved?

Amidst all that, Barkley has been quite vocal. He’s continued discussing the NBA’s potential future or lack thereof on Inside The NBA itself. He’s done that in his regular appearances on The Dan Patrick Show as well. And he’s shown up on a wide range of other radio shows, TV programs, and podcasts. One particularly interesting note there came from Tania Ganguli in The New York Times (that would be the NYT Business section that has taken in some former NYT Sports people like Ganguli after the Sports section was shuttered in favor of The Athletic) Tuesday, where she described speaking to Barkley when his colleagues and PR representatives very much didn’t want him to talk:

The future of “Inside the NBA” was already a sensitive topic when Charles Barkley stepped into an elevator in Minneapolis after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals late Friday night.

…When Barkley, who had already batted away several attempts by security and public relations officials to prevent him from doing an interview, ushered me into an elevator filled with his co-workers, not everyone was happy.

Kenny Smith, Barkley’s on-screen foil, voiced his irritation. But Barkley, as he has done throughout his decades in the public eye, made clear that he wouldn’t be muzzled.

“Hey, man, I can talk to who I want to,” Barkley said to Smith, using an expletive. Others in the elevator shifted uncomfortably.

“You should do that out there,” Smith said, suggesting the interview be done outside the elevator.

Barkley turned to me: “Don’t worry about him.”

“She should clear it through Turner,” Smith said. “She should do it the right way.”

…Approached for an interview, Johnson pointed me to the public relations team. TNT had declined to arrange interviews with its talent for this article. After the game, Johnson interrupted the interview with Barkley as he left the elevator to castigate me for approaching him without permission from the company.

A first easy response to that would be to criticize TNT Sports PR for not arranging interviews here (especially with a prominent and established NYT reporter; yes, they’re not going to say yes to every request for their in-demand talent, especially during a crucial part of the playoffs, but this is not your average request), and to criticize the non-Barkley cast members for not talking. This situation seems potentially more nuanced than that, though.

With these deals not actually signed yet, and with NBA commissioner Adam Silver seemingly holding onto the idea of the idea of keeping TNT Sports involved somehow, it’s somewhat understandable that executives (perhaps well above the level of the PR team) might want to keep media comments on the future of the NBA on TNT and Inside The NBA to a minimum. It’s also plausible that some of the talent might also not want to weigh in on this publicly; whether their declines to Ganguli were actually about interview-arranging protocol or about not wanting to speak up, there can be understandable reasons for that. So, rather than castigation for why others didn’t wind up talking to the Times, the more remarkable thing here may be that Barkley did.

That’s a highly unusual circumstance. As mentioned above, many on-the-record newspaper/print interviews with network figures in particular are arranged through PR. Some interviews happen from reporters’ individual contacts with talent, but even then, PR is often at least informed and involved in clearing it. (And that’s not all about shooting down stories; PR staffers are also often key to persuading talent to talk to media for specific stories.)

And where exceptions happen, they’re often more in the radio realm; it makes sense that Barkley would keep appearing on Patrick’s show, for example, as that’s something he’s done for a long time and someone he has a long-held relationship with. But Barkley’s shown over the past weeks that he’s willing to take his thoughts on the future of the NBA on TNT and Inside The NBA to almost any platform that will have him. And Ganguli’s story of the process of getting Barkley to talk, and everyone else turning her down, is a remarkable anecdote there.

In a similar vein, Jimmy Traina interviewed Barkley for his Sports Illustrated podcast this week. There, Barkley told him WBD Sports staff “know better” than to push back on him after his various critical comments. That’s notable, as those included even a “that’s how full of s**t the whole thing is with CNN” at one point. And that also included his remarks to Patrick last week on “clowns I work for” (presumably including WBD CEO David Zaslav):

The thing is, Barkley has always been willing to take some shots at his own network. That’s part of who he is at this point. And he has the star status to pull that off; indeed, some of the talk here has been just about where Barkley will land if the cast does split up. So yes, that’s probably going to happen in any interview he does, and it’s understandable why network PR (and their bosses) might not be eager to have that happen.

But there also seems to be some merit to Barkley’s strategy of continuing to talk about this, and to doing so in unconventional forums, from local news to podcasts to NYT reporters PR turned down. First off, Barkley’s goals are not necessarily 100 percent aligned with WBD’s: he reportedly has an out clause in his contract that could let him leave if they lose the NBA, and while he’s often talked about retirement, he might want to keep going and make that exit later on his own terms.

There’s also the the much-floated idea of Barkley taking Inside The NBA independent and licensing it to someone. His media tour certainly helps buttress the idea of him as the central Inside The NBA figure, and boosts the chance of him being the one to take it independent. And it also might increase interest from other networks in the idea of bringing it on board (especially with the laurels it’s currently receiving from players to media members to fans).

Beyond that, though, there’s an argument to be made that Barkley’s media tour could actually be beneficial for WBD’s chances of keeping the NBA. Yes, that looks like a long shot right now. And yes, that may not happen at all. Money tends to talk much louder in rights negotiations than popular love for studio shows, and that’s understandable.

But every single Barkley comment before this deal is actually signed draws attention, and draws notice. And it draws sympathy for Inside The NBA and TNT Sports, and regret that it may end. It’s far from clear that that will be enough to keep Inside The NBA going (at least in its present form at TNT), but if ever there was a studio show that could alter a rights negotiation, it would be this one. And, interestingly enough, Barkley’s eventual comments in that NYT piece (apart from his criticism of Zaslav’s “We don’t have to have the NBA,” but he’s said that before, and there’s a wide outside crowd doing that too) really were not off-message at all:

“I love my job,” Barkley said. “Been working with these people for 24 years, we have a lot of fun together. And we’re hoping it continues. We’re hoping, but we have no control over it.”

Overall, Barkley’s media tour, even if probably not perfectly on-message with what network execs and PR might want right now, fits with the authenticity and honesty that’s been key to this show’s success for 30-plus years. So there’s some logic to what he’s doing here. And if some salvation in some form does actually arrive for Inside The NBA, the unconventional Barkley media blitz may be part of the reason why.

[The New York Times]


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.