Will AT&T and Turner Sports Keep the NBA in Next Half Decade's Live Rights Carousel?

NBA on TNT / Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As has been widely discussed, just about all relevant live rights aside from the NCAA Tournament and World Series (which Fox already renewed) are up in the next five years. The NFL was first and we've seen that those are churning, and, if the CBA gets done soon, their TV deals could follow quickly. Concurrently, NHL rights are up next year, the Big Ten is up in 2023, the Pac-12 is up in early 2024, the Big 12 is up in early 2025. The NBA is up later in 2025.

There have been murmurs in the industry wondering whether Turner Sports, under the WarnerMedia umbrella owned by AT&T, will keep its package. Turner has expressed confidence in doing so, and the NBA publicly expresses happiness with the company, despite the fact that several connected people in sports media have told The Big Lead otherwise about facets of the partnership, particularly NBA TV.

It may seem a long way until 2025, but remember that Disney/ESPN/ABC just plucked rights for the SEC Game of the Week away from CBS when the rights remain under CBS' control for four more seasons (there have been rumors that the companies are working on a trade to perhaps bring it into Disney sooner). If you don't think the NBA and AT&T are already beginning to explore their strategic options, you're insane.

The television landscape has changed dramatically since the NBA renewed its rights deal with Turner Sports and ESPN in 2014. While I maintain that cord-cutting is not the primary reason NBA ratings have declined this season, it's a factor that nearly 20 million customers have left cable and satellite since their peak. Broadcast networks are experiencing some distribution losses too, but they are available in far more homes. Sports on broadcast networks dominate the TV landscape in terms of total viewership.

If the NBA is concerned about reach, ESPN can continue to move some of its inventory onto ABC, but AT&T does not have a broadcast network on which it can air games. TNT has also lost some of its viewership churn for its entertainment programming as so much quality content -- and thus eyeballs -- migrate towards ad-free platforms. Everything is fragmenting with the proliferation of streaming platforms. TNT viewership was down 15 percent in 2019 versus 2018. (WarnerMedia is launching its HBO Max streaming platform in May; while there is no announced sports content yet, perhaps there will be eventually.)

There was major enthusiasm in the marketplace that AT&T was building a massive sports juggernaut, especially before the justice department held up the merger of AT&T and Time Warner. However, the merger got stalled from 2016 until early 2019, as the TV industry rapidly evolved.

AT&T's DirecTV has been hemorrhaging subscribers and its strategy has been seriously called into question. WarnerMedia lost the UEFA Champions League to CBS (like Fox wondered when they lost the package to TNT and Bleacher Report, people at WarnerMedia wonder how CBS will make money on it). WarnerMedia went hard enough after PGA Tour rights and considered turning Tru TV or HLN into a new golf channel, but those events are staying with CBS and NBC. A massive new studio was erected for Dan Patrick; ultimately, DirecTV repurposed the Audience Network into an HBO Max preview channel and canceled the Dan Patrick Show and Rich Eisen Show.

An element of the deal between Turner Sports and the NBA includes a partnership on NBA TV, NBA League Pass, and NBA.com. In my personal opinion, NBA TV lags well behind MLB Network and NFL Network in relevance, content depth, and production values. Three sources have told The Big Lead that high-level people in the NBA league office are not happy with Turner's performance in the NBA TV joint venture; one source said the NBA is considering clawing back Turner's portion of the network control in the next rights agreement.

The NBA disputes accounts of any unhappiness with the partnership. “We have a terrific long-standing partnership with Turner Sports and WarnerMedia," NBA spokesman Mike Bass tells The Big Lead. "They provide outstanding NBA coverage across multiple platforms and are constantly evolving and innovating. Anyone who tells you we feel otherwise is wrong.”

Turner Sports is also adamant that it will be long-term partners with the NBA. A spokesperson tells The Big Lead, “We have a decades-long partnership with the NBA, one of the most successful in sports media, and look forward to it continuing for many years to come.”

It would be unfair to say that Turner's presentation of the NBA is all bad. The Inside the NBA studio show remains gold standard bumper programming. The broadcast team of Ian Eagle and Stan Van Gundy has been spectacular this season. Bleacher Report has high digital engagement numbers. Elsewhere in WarnerMedia, upstart wrestling promotion AEW is surpassing quality expectations and performing very well in the cable landscape on Wednesday nights; the two companies renewed their rights deal and AEW will be adding a show and remaining on TNT for at least four more years.

Another element of the NBA's partnership enduring with WarnerMedia is back-end rights. When Fox sought to enter the fray and become a third league broadcast partner the last time around, ESPN and TNT raced to get a rights deal done before they came to market to block that from happening.

Presuming that AT&T retains similar back-end rights this time around, it's not going to be easy for all or part of its TV package to be yanked away. Nevertheless, if there's a sport that is tailor-made for a cash cow company like Google, Amazon, Apple, or Facebook to finally swoop in and acquire meaningful exclusive rights, it's the NBA, which has a younger audience than the other major sports. Many people in the industry remain skeptical that they'll do that until it's proven otherwise; perhaps partnerships could be formed to make it an additive equation instead of a substitution.

It'll be interesting to see what happens not just with the NBA, but all the rights packages coming up. At least as far as the NBA is concerned, at this moment both the league and Turner Sports maintain that they expect the partnership to continue in the long run.