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Disney CEO: ‘We Would Love to Be in Business with the NBA’ - Which Services Would Pay $75 Billion to Stream?

Ben Bowman

As live TV continues its long slide to oblivion, sports has emerged as the only thing keeping it afloat. Last year, 75 of the top 100 live television programs were NFL games, and only five non-sporting events cracked the list. Advertisers lust for live viewers who won’t skip commercials, and they’re willing to pay a premium to reach them. With the NBA’s TV rights deal nearing expiration after the 2024-25 season, which streaming services are willing to take a bite of the projected $75 billion needed to grab the games?

Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+

Presently, Disney enjoys the benefits of having the NBA on linear ESPN, but not all games are available on ESPN+. If the linear channel were to lose NBA rights, cable operators and vMVPDs might be more willing to cut the expensive channel loose. In fact, most of Disney’s negotiating leverage is tied to ESPN and ABC, which is why it tends to get into carriage disputes during the NFL season.

During yesterday’s earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek said, “As we go forward, we’re looking at multiplatform rights. We will not do deals where we don’t get multiplatform rights to give us that flexibility that we talked about, toggling between the more linear traditional legacy distribution channels and the more digital forward-looking platforms.”

“We would love to be in business with the NBA but, again, we’re going to do it in a fiscally-responsible way and seeking multiplatform rights so we feel really good about our position going forward with the rights that we’ve already got,” Chapek said.

Expect Disney to make a strong play for basketball rights, as long as it can get the streaming options it wants.

HBO Max/TNT

David Zaslav has been on a crusade to cut costs, but is he bold enough to walk away from the NBA? He’s already made many questionable moves, throwing content off the HBO Max platform as a tax write-off, canceling shows like “Westworld,” and demanding that new shows top the ratings of mega-hit sitcom reruns to justify their renewals. He’s also throwing his weight around at CNN, telling staffers not to book plane flights or hotel rooms.

Zaslav is also insistent that audiences will love the merged HBO Max and discovery+ product coming next spring, despite the fact that there is very little current overlap between those subscriber bases.

“When [NBA Commissioner Adam Silver] thinks about the future, he thinks about it the same way that I do,” Zaslav said. “None of us love the idea that the only way to watch these games is on cable. There should be an opportunity because there’s a lot of people under 25 that aren’t having access to it.”

“We love the NBA, but we’re going to be disciplined,” Zaslav said.

If TNT misses out on the NBA and CNN continues its contraction, cable operators and vMVPDs may be willing to throw the Turner channels overboard. FuboTV already cut ties with the channels. TNT losing the NBA would force providers to reassess its value, but Zaslav’s iron grip on the company’s purse might win out.

Netflix

Netflix has no live sports on the platform, and it seems the company is more willing to entertain the notion. A recent Wall Street Journal report suggested the original streaming giant is open to sports, but it would seem unlikely the company would allocate so much of its already-high budget to one major sport. If Netflix takes a bite of the NBA, that seems like a panic move out of step with its philosophy to date.

Fox/Tubi

Although Fox has no NBA footprint and a minimal streaming presence, basketball would be a huge win for Fox Sports 1. Just as the NFL legitimized FOX in 1993, the NBA could vault FS1 into must-have sports channel status. Since Fox doesn’t really have a streaming footprint beyond the FAST standout Tubi and niche players like Fox Nation and Fox SOUL, that could complicate (or simplify) the bid.

Paramount+/CBS

CBS has historically been the home of college basketball, but would Paramount be willing to shell out for the NBA? CBS linear relies heavily on its prime-time lineup, and it seems unlikely it would surrender linear time for a full season of basketball. It would make an attractive addition to Paramount+, however. The service already has every match of UEFA Champions League and Serie A.

Apple TV+

Apple has already dipped its toes in the sports pond with a handful of MLB games. The company has money to burn, but would it try to take on the NBA? It seems more likely Apple will go after NFL Sunday Ticket, but if that deal falls through, the NBA could be a consolation prize.

Prime Video

Amazon has been very aggressive with its streaming spending lately. The Thursday Night Football effort seems to be paying off, and Prime Video is following many games with live concert broadcasts. With no significant budget restraints, the NBA would make a compelling addition to this service on the rise.

Peacock/NBC

NBC lost the NBA after 2002, but the network could use a boost as its linear viewership continues to slip away. NBC has even floated the idea of returning its last hour of prime time to the affiliates, which is a kind of soft surrender. Although Peacock has struggled to gain traction, new investments in the service have made it a more compelling value, complete with live feeds of local affiliates. Comcast lost its bid for the 20th Century Fox library, but the NBA might be a nice consolation prize. If anything, it would be worth buying just so NBC could use “Roundball Rock” again.

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