Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav plans not to overpay to retain the NBA on TNT, the flagship cable network under the company banner.
Tuesday, Zaslav spoke with the RBC in a wide-ranging conversation about the company's sports portfolio. He lamented the favorable broadcast deals with MLB, the NHL, and March Madness. He then oozed pessimism over Discovery's forthcoming negotiations with the NBA.
“We don’t have to have the NBA. And if we do a new deal with the NBA, it’s gonna look a lot different,” Zaslav said. “I’d like to do a deal with the NBA, but it has to be a deal for the future. It can’t be a deal for the past.”
The NBA's rights deals with Warner Bros. Discovery (formerly WarnerMedia) and Disney expire after the 2024-25 season.
The current agreement between the two partners accounts for $24 billion. However, a report from CNBC in 2021 says NBA officials hope to see that number triple. Optimism around the NBA follows the NFL securing an 11-year, $110 billion deal with NBC, Fox, CBS, Disney (ESPN/ABC), and Amazon.
But the NBA is not the NFL. The interest in professional basketball continues to wane. The NBA has been on a downward spiral for at least five seasons.
Regular season games are increasingly lackluster in both quality and ratings. TNT presently airs half of the NBA postseason and a doubleheader a week.
Last season, the network bumped the first half of the doublepheader package from Thursday to the lesser-viewed Tuesday night after struggling to hold up against the NFL's increased priority on Thursday Night Football.
Furthermore, Warner Bros. Discovery is embroiled in debt. Zaslav described the advertising market as "weak" on Tuesday. Discovery's premium brand, HBO, lost $3 billion last year after spending almost $7 billion on content. Its cable news network, CNN, is on pace to drop below $1 billion in profit for the first time since 2016 as ratings hemorrhage.
So, overpaying for a declining product in the NBA is hardly an advantageous business decision for Discovery.
Zaslav suggested the company could move some NBA games to HBO Max next go-around to monetize the package more effectively. But if that's the case, a streamer with unlimited resources -- say Amazon or Apple -- could greatly complicate negotiations between the NBA and Discovery.
Zaslav and Co. could not prevail in a bidding war with Amazon and Apple, assuming Disney retains its portion of the NBA package.
Perhaps the NBA would re-sign with Warner Bros. for a rate lower than a streamer to keep the NBA on cable. Streaming platforms remain relatively ratings-challenged compared to television averages. For reference, viewership for this NFL season is down year-over-year merely on account of Amazon airing Thursday Night Football exclusively.
"Sports is hard," Zaslav elaborated on the NBA. Yes. Especially sports of diminishing returns.