NBC needs the NBA again

Call out John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” — “The NBA on NBC” could return if NBC Sports catches on.

Komcast‘s NBCUniversal is preparing to regain broadcast rights from the National Basketball Association, more than 20 years after the company lost them Disney and Turner Sports, according to people familiar with the matter.

NBCUniversal executives have notified the NBA of their potential interest, the people said, asking not to be named because the discussions are private. NBC Sports would like a package containing playoff games to be aired on NBC’s broadcast network, two of the people said. Some regular season games may be exclusive to NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock. The NBA may also decide to force media companies to simulcast all games to increase reach, the people said.

Apple And Amazon have also expressed an interest to the NBA in purchasing carved streaming packages, people familiar with the matter said. Amazon currently has a deal with the NBA that allows it to stream games in Brazil.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) attempts a basket in front of Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) in the second half during game three of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden.

Kyle Terada | USA today sports

No formal discussions can take place with non-acting bidders unless Warner Bros. Discoverywhich owns Turner Sports, and Disney are agreeing to waive their exclusive negotiation windows, which end in April 2024, according to people familiar with the matter.

An NBA spokesman confirmed that no national rights talks have taken place with NBCUniversal at this time, while adding that the league has “a longstanding relationship with Comcast/NBA as a past NBA TV national rights holder and through many of our teams’ partnerships with NBC Sports Regional maintains sports networks.”

Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery own the NBA rights through the end of the 2024-2025 season — more than two years from now. It’s possible that the NBA will simply go back to working with both existing parties and never open negotiations with outside bidders. This happened in 2014, the last renewal of the league.

But that probably won’t happen this time, as streaming has become TV’s dominant delivery method, people said. The NBA will likely work out one or two new packages for bidders, pushing its media rights partners from two to three or four, two of the people said.

Disney is expected to bid on a rights package for ESPN, ESPN+ and ABC, the people said.

Charles Barkley at Inside the NBA

Source: NBA on TNT

Warner Bros. Discovery’s interest in the NBA is more murky. CEO David Zaslav said in November, “We don’t have to have the NBA.” Turner’s relationship with the league is showcased on the long-running studio show “Inside the NBA,” hosted by Ernie Johnson and former NBA stars Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery athletic director Luis Silberwasser will likely use this year to decide what kind of future relationship they want with the NBA, according to a person familiar with their mindset.

Spokespersons for NBCUniversal, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Amazon declined to comment. A spokesman for Apple was not immediately available for comment.

NBC’s NBA pitch

It’s possible that NBCUniversal will compete directly with Warner Bros. Discovery to become the league’s second traditional TV affiliate alongside ESPN. NBCUniversal may offer a Broadcast Network (NBC) to air NBA games when pay-TV providers begin hiring cable networks, such as TNT and TBS, that primarily run reruns of scripted programs when no sporting events are on. Comcast also owns Sky, which could give the NBA another international broadcaster.

“What you have today are programmers selling us content at increasingly higher prices and asking us to distribute it to almost all of our customers, while also selling the exact same content on either streaming platforms or creating a direct-to-consumer product even at a much lower cost,” said Chris Winfrey, CEO of Charter, the second largest U.S. cable provider, in an op-ed published by CNBC last week. “Our willingness to continue funding this for programmers when that content becomes available for free elsewhere.” is declining, which means that within the linear video construct you will see an increasing number of distributors deciding that it no longer makes sense to broadcast certain content.”

Warner Bros. Discovery may counter with a larger global streaming service — the combined HBO Max/Discovery+ (probably called Max) — launching later this year. Warner Bros. Discovery ended September with about 95 million streaming subscribers, far surpassing Peacock’s 20 million, who live only in the US. The NBA has been a partner of Turner Sports for nearly 40 years.

Michael Jordan #23 and Scottie Pippen #33

Nathaniel S Butler

Many NBA fans fondly remember “The NBA on NBC” for its dramatic “Roundball Rock” theme song and the era-defining broadcast of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, who won six championships in the 1990s. NBC aired its final NBA games during the 2002 finals when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Jersey Nets. Games have been split between Disney’s ESPN and ABC and Turner Sports’ TNT and TBS for the past two decades. ABC will broadcast the NBA Finals.

The value of the NBA

The NBA offers live programming that is valuable to advertisers and regularly engages millions of viewers. NBA regular season games on ABC, ESPN and TNT have averaged 1.6 million viewers this season. That’s flat from last year, although the total number of U.S. households subscribing to cable TV fell to 62 million from 70 million, according to NBA data.

NBA rights are up for renewal while global media companies cut costs, which could pressure the league to lower its expectations for how much a price hike would be. Warner Bros. Discovery laid off thousands of employees last year and slashed billions of dollars in content costs. Disney announced last week that it plans to cut 7,000 jobs and cut costs by $5.5 billion, including $3 billion in savings on non-sports content. The NFL received a 40% to 80% increase in its media rights when it extended its contract by 11 years in 2021.

It’s too early to say how much the NBA can increase revenue from its new TV deal, but initial suggestions are of a 200 percent increase from about $25 billion to more than $70 billion Nine years is probably too optimistic about the matter, according to those familiar with it. An annual increase approaching 100% may be more likely given the secular decline in the linear pay-TV and streaming businesses, which are still losing billions of dollars each year, two of the people said.

WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

Watch CNBC's full interview with David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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