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Warner Bros. Discovery CEO: Doesn’t ‘Have to Have the NBA’; If NBA Leaves TNT, Where Could It Go?

Jeff Kotuby

In less than one year as CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav has made some “interesting” comments, but his latest thoughts about the NBA might take the cake for many.

During his appearance on Tuesday at the RBC Capital Markets Global Technology, Internet, Media & Telecom Conference, Zaslav was asked about where sports fit into WBD’s future plans. While the CEO praised recent deals with the NHL and NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, he mentioned something interesting about the company’s relationship with the NBA.

“We have another couple of years on the NBA, and Adam [Silver, NBA commissioner] is a friend of mine for 20 years,” he said. “But we’re going to be very disciplined. We don’t have to have the NBA, and if we do a deal on the NBA, it’s going to look a lot different.”

Zaslav has said similar things about his company’s approach to sports in the past, including that just signing multi-year deals that will eventually need to be renegotiated is not what WBD is looking for. Instead, his goal is to have some sort of equity in the league, so that the broadcast rights — while still needing to be negotiated periodically — are not potentially going to be lost down the line.

The executive also realizes that WBD has one of the cornerstone products in all of sports broadcasting and will continue to air NBA games through the 2024-25 season on the current contract.

“We have real assets that differentiate us from anybody else,” he said. “We have an NBA show that’s probably the No. 1 show in sport, with [Charles] Barkley and Shaq [O’Neal] and Ernie [Johnson] … Our ratings for the NBA are 30%, 40% higher than when it’s on another platform.”

Clearly, Zaslav understands the success and overall importance of the NBA for WBD, including the award-winning studio show “Inside the NBA,” so why would he make the comment about not needing the NBA in the first place? Is it an odd negotiating strategy? Is it just one of Zaslav’s flavor of the month quotes?

While examining the quote and looking at Warner Bros. Discovery in the macro sense, it doesn’t really seem like the NBA is going anywhere and this really is either an off-handed comment or a bluff designed to potentially bring the price down on the next rights deal. WBD just extended the “Inside the NBA” crew for 10 more years and that would be one heck of a write-off should the company not bring back the NBA in some capacity. Of course, the company could continue to air “Inside the NBA” on TNT even if the channel doesn’t actually broadcast any games, but that seems unlikely.

And yes, the next NBA rights agreement will include a bigger emphasis on streaming, which plays to the strengths of WBD as it prepares to launch a unified HBO Max and discovery+ streaming service next spring. The next deal between WBD and the NBA would almost certainly include a multi-channel approach that would still include linear, but also streaming platforms like HBO Max and Bleacher Report.

Where Else Could the NBA Go?

Theoretically, if the NBA left WBD Sports and pursued a deal with new outlets, there are plenty of options that make sense — one of which they’re already in business with.

Apple

Apple TV+ would seemingly make sense following its recent 10-year deal with MLS. The company has been investing in sports advertising infrastructure ahead of next year’s MLS launch while also actively negotiating for the NFL Sunday ticket.

Landing a deal with the NBA, which has a much younger-skewing audience than most other professional sports leagues would be a big boon for the company, as it would fit into its multi-pronged approach to streaming and retail sales.

Amazon

Similarly, Amazon would love to pair its NFL coverage with NBA coverage. Locking select NBA contests to Prime Video in the same way that the company has become the exclusive broadcaster of the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” games would no doubt attract viewers’ attention. Plus, Al Michaels would probably feel more at home reading ad copy for Bucks-Sixers than the latest “Lord of the Rings” series.

Disney

We could also see Disney step in and become the one-stop-shop for all things NBA. The company already owns broadcasting and streaming rights to the NBA games, including Eastern Conference playoff games and the NBA Finals, and Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek recently said he'd love to do more business with the NBA.

Disney could theoretically acquire the rest of the rights and complete the basketball Infinity Gauntlet. If you didn’t think poor Stephen A. Smith worked too much now, imagine if ESPN was the only company with basketball rights.

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