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The fight for the rights to air the NBA

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Current NBA battle this playoff season is taking place off the court, and it involves big, big money. TNT, ESPN, NBC and Amazon Prime are fighting for rights to air NBA games. And as the billions of dollars are being thrown around, there is a real chance that TNT might be left on the outside looking in, and TNT's iconic "Inside The NBA" could possibly be no more. And that would mean no more Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES BARKLEY: The big elephant in the room in sports today - well, other than Shaq - is...

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL: I'd rather be an elephant than a hippo.

DETROW: Of course, all of this also just underscores the future of sports on TV and the strength of the NBA as a brand, according to Andrew Marchand. He's a columnist with The Athletic. Welcome.

ANDREW MARCHAND: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So what are the state of things right now? Who's in? Who might be out?

MARCHAND: So right now, ESPN, which has the finals every year, they have a framework agreement to keep the finals on their air - it's also on ABC and, of course, Disney-owned - for 11 more years. The other one is Amazon Prime Video, which has a framework agreement to be a new partner for the NBA to go fully into streaming for the next deals. They would get a conference final every other year. That leaves incumbent TNT fighting with Comcast and NBC for that final package, and it's probably going to get a little bit messy here...

DETROW: Yeah.

MARCHAND: ...As NBC has made an aggressive bid - $2.5 billion per season. But Turner, they don't want to lose it. And Warner Bros Discovery, it's very important to their portfolio. Turner, which has gone through a number of transitions, has had the NBA for nearly 40 years.

DETROW: What is interesting to me is that you framed your article - in the grand tradition of basketball, trash talk has played a key role in these negotiations. Can you explain what you mean by that?

MARCHAND: Well, the chairman of Warner Bros Discovery, David Zaslav, two years ago at a conference said that his company doesn't necessarily need the NBA, which caught the attention of Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, and executives at the NBA because they're not used to being treated like that. So that is kind of underlying these negotiations.

DETROW: What do you think this means for the NBA fan? - because you mentioned TNT has had the NBA for almost 40 years, and we were talking about the way that their on-air personalities are such a cultural part of the sport. Like, how much would be lost if, in the end, TNT loses out and doesn't have basketball?

MARCHAND: It'll be different, I mean, for sure. I mean, however you look at it, the way we view basketball in these next contracts is going to change because of the expected addition of Amazon Prime Video, where you have a streamer, and there's no linear television - so no broadcast or no cable company involved, at least for one of the packages. And TNT, if they keep it, they do have Max, which is their offshoot of HBO, where, you know, you'll be able to watch the games as well. So this is just - overall, for sports fans, things are moving in that streaming direction, just kind of like the rest of television.

DETROW: We're talking multibillion-dollar rights deals. I guess the price does make sense if TV networks are willing to pay it, but do the prices that we're talking about here - do you think that's an accurate reflection of the global strength of the NBA at this moment?

MARCHAND: I guess it comes down to, you know, you're worth what someone's willing to pay. And I think going forward, if you look at trying to compete with Netflix, which right now is the leader in streaming, one thing that has worked for these companies is sports because people who have to have these games are willing to keep the services for the full year. And so they're powerful, and even - especially on broadcast TV, the one thing that still works is sports. It's live, which makes it very good for advertising because people are engaged. And so you could see why sports is going to be strong now and into the future.

I do think the big question, though, going forward, is the younger generation, who are very used to being able to access everything on social media and can right now - if LeBron James does something great, it's on social media two seconds later. And that's a problem when you think about getting people to make a point in viewing to watch these games.

DETROW: Andrew Marchand is a columnist for The Athletic. Thank you so much.

MARCHAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.