- ESPN and NBC believe their ‘megaphone’ ability is key
- Apple and Amazon have made major sports rights moves
- Next NBA rights cycle begins in 2025
The heads of ESPN and NBC Sports believe their ability to combine linear and streaming distribution will continue to give them an advantage over big tech firms when securing major sports rights – including the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Amazon and Apple have made several investments in the sports space, with the former securing the National Football League’s (NFL) Thursday Night Football in the US, while the latter has signed a US$2.5 billion ten-year deal with Major League Soccer (MLS).
Many rights holders are interested in courting streaming platforms as a way to increase the value of their broadcast deals, while deep-pocketed big tech firms see sports rights as a valuable acquisition tool to bring consumers into their ecosystems.
However, speaking at the inaugural IMG Summit, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro and NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said their companies had the ability to offer more than just a large cheque, given their range of services and established market presence.
“There’s no doubt the competition is fierce; it’s probably a tougher environment than it’s ever been,” said Pitaro.
“We’ve always had competition, so what’s key for us is to maintain discipline … and demonstrate how we differentiate. It’s not just about the obvious like brand; it’s the megaphone, our studio programming, how we’re 24/7 getting behind a league to drive awareness and affinity, what we’re doing on socials, [online], and the app, the quality of our production.”
He continued: “I’m speaking from experience here: we have closed deals over past few years where we weren’t the highest bidder. [Audience expansion] is one of, if not [sports leagues’] top priority. Money matters, of course, but it’s just one component.”
Pitaro said the inability or unwillingness for tech companies to get involved in production was another differentiator, citing the breakdown of Apple’s reported bid for the Pac-12 college football rights. However, Lazarus added that even then there was still a significant gap.
“Eventually – [big tech has the] money and means – [to] create a production unit. But [what] is really important is the scale of our companies,” he said. “All things being equal, if we sit in front of a property and the money is there or close, we provide different set of assets to pure streamers.”
The NBA is the next major property up for grabs and, given the length of broadcast contracts in the US, it is possibly the last opportunity to make an impact on the market for several years. The next cycle kicks in from 2025 and the league is reportedly eyeing a massive US$75 billion deal, up from its current US$24 billion arrangement signed in 2014.
One of the ways it plans on doing this is by creating a streaming-only package that could tempt a big tech firm. As one of the NBA’s incumbent broadcast partners, along with Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), ESPN has signaled its intention to continue. Meanwhile. NBC is also interested in expanding its portfolio.
Both ESPN and NBC say their ability to offer both linear and digital distribution will be key in any negotiations.
“We’re going to sit down relatively soon with the NBA – we’ve actually already started conversations and they very much prioritise the relationship with ABC,” said Pitaro. “The NBA Finals live exclusively on broadcast television.”
“We have a fantastic relationship with the [NBA]. “It’s critical that we get this deal done. We see the value in that property across our various platforms – not just ABC, of course ESPN. We expect that deal to be much more forward-thinking, forward-leaning and progressive, so we expect a significant direct-to-consumer component. I think [NBA commissioner Adam Silver] and I are aligned on that aspect of what that deal needs to look like.”
“Both NBC and me personally have long histories with NBA from my Turner years,” added Lazarus. “It’s a wonderful product in the States and globally. It’s a really valuable product, it’s culturally relevant in ways maybe some other sports aren’t, it speaks to multiple generations, so we’re intrigued by that, but we’re not an incumbent and the process will come and go as it does.”