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How the NBA’s broadcast rights tussle could affect advertisers

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While the NBA weighs up competing broadcast rights bids from the likes of Comcast, Disney, Warner Bros and Amazon, marketers and media agencies are keeping a close watch out for a change in the media status quo surrounding the league.

Many of the details concerning potential end-game scenarios, such as which weeknight fixtures go to which broadcaster, are up in the air.

But agency execs believe there’ll undoubtedly be implications for the NBA’s current commercial partners, and potential opportunities for brands currently shut out from the league’s enormous audiences. 

The state of play

Broadcast rights for the NBA are currently split across two packages. Games in the regular basketball season, playoffs and conference finals are divvied up between Disney-owned ABC and ESPN, and Warner Bros broadcast network Turner Network Television (TNT); ABC is the sole broadcaster for the NBA Finals. At the moment, the league is currently weighing up proposals from ABC, TNT and ESPN to renew those deals for 10 years beginning with the 2025-26 season, in addition to rival bids from Comcast-owned NBC and an additional bid from Amazon.

Though it could stick with its existing broadcast partners, the introduction of Amazon Prime Video unto the scene could lead to a three-package system. NBC’s proposal is also understood to take some games from linear TV on to its Peacock platform, meaning there could be two streaming platforms being added to the mix.

Media agency experts told Digiday that streaming services could potentially bring new audiences to the NBA and create new opportunities for advertisers thus-far shut out of the sport.

David Levy, co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences and former president of Turner Networks, told Digiday that “It certainly seems like there’s going to be a third package that’s out in the marketplace.

“I believe that’s opportunistic for advertisers that had been blocked out, or due to exclusivity have not been able to be a part of the NBA,” Levy added. “This may allow new advertisers to come in that have been unsuccessful in the past or have been blocked out through exclusivity.”

According to The Athletic, the NBA has already agreed to a rights framework with ESPN, ABC and Amazon Prime Video that would see the streaming platform pick up regular season games and conference finals.

The fate of the final package — which NBC is attempting to wrest from TNT — remains as yet undecided. Luis Silberwasser, CEO of Warner Bros Discovery Sports, didn’t exude much confidence at the company’s upfront presentation Wednesday morning when he said, “We look forward to making an agreement with the league,” after reminding them of the current deal’s expiration after next season. Walking out of the upfront, held at Madison Square Garden where the New York Knicks play, one buyer joked, “Well that didn’t sound very encouraging.”

NBC’s proposal, though, is considered to have critical “momentum,” according to one media buyer who asked to remain anonymous. It’s offered the NBA $2.5 billion a year, according to the Wall Street Journal, beating TNT’s $1.2 billion by some distance. And though existing NBA commercial partners — such as watchmaker Tissot, car manufacturer Nissan and videogame publisher 2K Sports — would likely be offered first refusal on deals with NBC, Amazon, ABC and ESPN — should the distribution of matches go to a larger number of broadcasts, according to the media buyer, it’ll be more difficult for a single brand to own the sport.

Behind the bids

Though it hasn’t held broadcast rights to the NBA since 2002, NBC is constructing a formidable sports-focused platform on Peacock. It already has marquee coverage of the Kentucky Derby, the soccer Premier League and the NFL, but the company needs to attract more viewers to the platform, which posted a $639 million loss in the first quarter of 2024.

“They seem to really be showing their their cards; they want to be a player and get back into the NBA space. It’s been a while since they were here,” said Jimmy Spano, evp and head of Dentsu Sports.

Its coverage of NFL Wildcard games, shown on the platform in January, impressed industry observers. The matches pulled in 28 million viewers, the largest audience in U.S. livestreaming history, according to NBCUniversal. “We’ve seen that streaming partners can handle live sports and that the fans will find it,” added Spano.

NBC’s bid is by no means guaranteed to succeed; Warner Bros and TNT has the right to submit an updated proposal. It’s unclear what appetite Warner has for that fight, though, given boss David Zaslav’s remark that it didn’t “need to have the NBA” at a 2022 investor conference. And the prospect of putting more basketball on streaming platforms, whether Peacock or Amazon, has media buyers intrigued.

Could streaming widen the NBA’s audience?

For one, those platforms could attract viewers that want to watch NBA games, but who are unlikely to sign up to a cable deal. Spano suggested younger audiences, unlikely to buy a new cable package, would, however, consider Peacock or Amazon. “I think streaming could potentially bring in a new audience and new fans, just like we’ve seen with Netflix and Drive To Survive,” he said. 

Industry observers expect some viewer attrition, at least initially, should the broadcast schedule be reshuffled. But Levy suggested it would only become an issue if the schedules aren’t nailed down. “If those nights are consistent, I don’t think you’re gonna have any confusion. … I don’t think that’s a problem.”

A fresh infusion of viewers and a more fragmented rights landscape could open up the field to newcomers, too. Should incumbent rights holders ABC and ESPN remain, they’ll be showing fewer games each to make room for Amazon. That could create a larger surface area for brands looking to break into the game, said Levy. “This may allow new advertisers to come in that have been unsuccessful in the past, or [that] have been blocked out through exclusivity,” he explained. 

Spano agreed. “For brands that have not been part of the NBA, whether it was cost prohibitive or maybe just not the audience they were looking for … the NBA potentially going into streaming should be looked at as an opportunity for them to get into a space they haven’t played in previously.”

Not all about live games

Despite that, there’s not a clear consensus that a move to NBC would definitely benefit advertisers. Though brands already advertising around the NBA could broaden their reach, should streaming attract new audiences, some have spent years earning the loyalty of fans on TNT through vehicles such as “Inside the NBA.”

The show, currently sponsored by automaker Kia, features basketball legends such as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. Broadcast since 1989, it’s “arguably the most loved basketball format that’s outside of the actual game,” according to Ant Firth-Clark, senior strategist at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. 

NBC could attempt to replicate that format, but converting the show’s dedicated fanbase might not be easy.

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