NBA Could More Than Double Its Annual Rights Fees in New TV Deals

Incoming Commissioner Adam Silver Will Be Key Decision-maker in 2014

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Adam Silver
Adam Silver Credit: Associated Press

Incoming NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is about to become the most popular man in sports TV.

The NBA's national media deals with ESPN/ABC and Turner Sports' TNT – which pay a combined $930 million per year – expire after the 2015/2016 season. But the NBA will start discussions with TV networks this summer and could make a decision by 2014, according to people familiar with the matter.

Outside of the Big Ten Conference's $1 billion annual deal with ESPN that runs through 2017, the NBA is the only big-time brand coming up for bid in the next few years. With new national sports cable networks such as Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network thirsting for live game programming, the NBA could boost its annual rights fees by 50% to 100%, if not more, said Ed Desser of Desser Sports Media.

In the middle of it all will be Mr. Silver, deputy commissioner to longtime Commissioner David Stern. He officially takes over Feb. 1, 2014 and no deal will be decided until after that date, people familiar with the matter said.

The NBA signed the current eight-year extension between ESPN/ABC and Turner in 2007. Before that, ESPN/ABC and Tuner had 6-year deals that were set to expire after the 2007/2008 season. When the NBA signed the current extensions in June 2007, it was coming off record-low TV ratings for the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers. The current deal gave the NBA a 20% boost in annual rights fees from the previous contract.

Most Important Content
Sports programming is "now the single most important form of content for networks," said Mr. Desser, who worked closely with Mr. Stern to negotiate the league's media deals with various networks from 1982 to 2005.

That's resulted in huge gains for the leagues when it's time to renegotiate. For example, Major League Baseball announced a more than 100% increase in annual rights fees from its previous deals when it signed multi-year extensions with Fox, ESPN and Turner Sports' TBS in 2012.

"I like the NBA's position and I think they are due for a very, very substantial catch-up just to get up to the market level," Mr. Desser said. "There's a buzz about the NBA. It's probably the most international of U.S. sports leagues in terms of its appeal."

The jockeying by TV executives has already begun. David Hill, the former chairman/CEO of Fox Sports brought back to help with the Aug. 17 launch of Fox Sports 1, had a private lunch meeting in recent months with Mr. Stern, who's expected to stay involved with the NBA as a global ambassador.

Fox Sports declined to comment on the meeting. But spokesman Lou D'Ermilio issued a statement on its interest in the NBA: "As a sports media business, we naturally would be interested in becoming a national partner with the NBA if and when the time comes."

In the Hunt
NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey confirmed it will be in the hunt. "We're always interested in good properties," he said.

But ESPN and Turner won't give up without a fight. ESPN has proven it will spend whatever it takes to get the sports properties it wants for its multiple channels.

An ESPN spokesman pointed to comments by its president, John Skipper, to Sports Illustrated after the network's upfront presentation to Madison Avenue. "The league is ascendant and the interest in the NBA at least during our tenure is at an all-time high. Ratings are kind of back to (Michael) Jordan levels. You have great teams. Players, big cities, I don't think I can state it more bluntly: The NBA is core and key product for ESPN."

In a statement, Turner said: "We have been partners with the NBA for more than a quarter century. Turner's partnership extends from our content rights on TNT to successfully co-managing the NBA Digital portfolio with the league for the past six years. This is certainly a key relationship for Turner and we look forward to continuing a long, and healthy, business partnership with the league for many years to come."

Turner said it posted its third most-watched and highest-rated regular season this year, averaging 2 million viewers and a 1.4 household rating over 52 game telecasts.

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