ESPN Attempting to Block Fox Sports 1 From Securing NBA Rights?

By Jason McIntyre
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ESPN is the Worldwide Leader in Sports, and when it comes to competition with other media entities, ESPN loves the idea of going for the killshot. Remember in 2007 when ESPN lavished Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly with a “ridonkulous” $10 million contract in hopes of putting the final nail in SI’s coffin?

Now, it appears, ESPN is attempting to cripple upstart rival Fox Sports 1 by boxing the network out of the NBA’s new rights deal. According to a report in the Sports Business Journal, ESPN is attempting to overpay the NBA for TV rights in an attempt to shut out Fox Sports 1.

"One source said ESPN already has committed to pay “well over” $1 billion per year, and Turner is not far behind for a media rights extension that would kick in with the 2016-17 season. A final deal might not be signed or announced before the new season, but talks with ESPN and Turner are advanced enough that sources said there is little chance the NBA will carve out a third package for another network, like Fox Sports or NBC Sports. ESPN, in particular, has been adamant during negotiations that the NBA not develop a new package to sell to a competitive sports network, sources said."

That last point leads to the obvious question: How far would ESPN go in this theoretical “no new package” discussion? It’s not like ESPN would pull out of the NBA … right? No chance. The NBA has become basically a 10-month sport, with nine months of that programming, and free agency in July being a big enough deal to warrant blanket coverage, too.

Or is ESPN so large and powerful that it thinks the NBA needs ESPN more than vice versa?

For months – or technically since Fox Sports 1 hatched, in August of 2013 – there was talk about the network getting a slice of NBA rights. It was a given from the outset that FS1 would likely have to overpay, but still get a small package of games. Network executives talked about attempting to acquire NBA rights, and internally, FS1 was confident about getting NBA games when the new deal was signed. FS1 even signed the most prolific newsbreaking NBA reporter, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, to a TV deal, showing the league it had a commitment to the NBA.

There are a few ways of looking at this story:

1) The SBJ story was a smokesignal to Fox Sports 1 – start your bidding for one night with full knowledge ESPN is at a billion. Go ask Rupert for a blank check.

2) It’s over. ESPN senses victory, and wants the news out there in a publication that caters to advertisers and TV networks.

3) Would the NBA really be so shortsighted as to not want more exposure for its product? The NFL is on four different networks (ESPN, NBC, Fox, CBS plus its own network) but the NBA just wants to limit it to two (and its own)?

The 2014-2015 season begins in late October, which is an ideal time to announce a new rights deal that begins with “Billion.”

Live events = eyeballs = shoulder programming = ratings.

The only other TV rights deal on the horizon is Big 10 football. That’s the Big 10 – the conference virtually eliminated from the College Football Playoff two weeks into this season.

Rupert Murdoch, you’re on the clock. Your lieutenants have maybe five weeks to salvage something.

Related: Low Ratings, Internal Squabbles & a Run at Time Warner: Fox Sports 1’s First Year
Related: ESPN Head of Research Takes Bizarre Shot at Fox Sports 1

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