After a busy few years of sports TV rights negotiations, only one major league is still available — the NBA.
The current NBA television deals with ESPN and Turner Sports do not expire until after the 2015-16 season, but the league looms large as the highest-profile property left for bid. Over the past two years, television rights to nearly everything else — the NFL, Olympics, World Cup, Major League Baseball, NHL, NCAA Tournament and college football playoff — have been locked up through the twenties.
Of the remaining properties, which include the second half of the NASCAR season and the Big East/Catholic 7, only the NBA has the ability to fundamentally change the sports TV landscape.
That was not the case in the mid-2000s, the last time NBA TV rights became available. The league was floundering in television ratings and public perception, and there was little demand among the networks to set aside a few hundred million for TV rights. Incumbents ESPN and Turner Sports, essentially running unopposed, were able to hold onto the rights an additional eight years.
Today, the NBA is in the midst of a five-year resurgence. Television ratings have broken records on cable in both the regular season and playoffs. On broadcast, where the league failed for years on ABC, ratings have soared back to NBC levels. The last three NBA Finals have averaged a double-digit rating, and four out of the last five NBA Finals have outdrawn the World Series in the same year.
The league’s improved fortunes are not the biggest change from the mid-2000s. Today, FOX and NBC — which were not even in the conversation when NBA rights were last up for bid — are likely to express perhaps serious interest in acquiring rights. With FOX set to launch two 24-hour sports networks this summer and NBC in desperate need of content for NBC Sports Network, the NBA’s hundreds of hours of game inventory are tantalizing.
As predicted by Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand last year, the NBA could also look toward an unconventional outlet such as Google’s YouTube for a game package. That may sound outlandish, but the NBA has never shied away from taking risks — shifting almost entirely to cable in 2002 was proof of that — and the league already has a deal with YouTube through its Developmental League.
More than three years before the next NBA TV deal goes into effect, here is an early look at the contenders: Fox Sports, NBC, ESPN, Turner, CBS, and Google.