As NBA TV deal nears, Warner Bros. Discovery is out

Warner Bros. Discovery executives thought they had presented the National Basketball Association with a proposition that it would accept.

In April, after months of negotiations, the company made a multibillion-dollar offer to the league for the right to continue broadcasting its games on TNT, as well as its Max streaming service. TNT has been broadcasting NBA games since the 1980s, and its “Inside the NBA” is widely considered one of the best sports shows ever.

But with the end of Warner Bros. Discovery’s exclusive negotiating window looming, the NBA insisted on changing the package of games the company would receive, according to two people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations. Warner Bros. Discovery objected, and while the two sides have continued to negotiate, the company now finds itself on the brink of losing the rights to televise the sport with which it has become inextricably linked. And on Friday night, the heartbeat of “Inside the NBA,” Hall of Fame member Charles Barkley, said he will retire from TV after next season.

“The first thing that comes to mind when you say TNT is the NBA,” said John Skipper, former president of ESPN.

Media companies, including Warner Bros. Discovery, were prepared for tough negotiations with the NBA. Sports rights remain an extremely valuable asset for traditional television networks, and companies are also increasingly seeing them as a way to attract more subscribers to their streaming services.

The league has made clear that it wants a sizable increase on the roughly $2.66 billion it receives annually, on average, from Warner Bros. Discovery and ESPN under its current rights deals, which went into effect in 2016. Executives at those companies knew that if they wanted to keep the NBA rights, they would have to pay more for fewer games so the NBA could create a third package of games to sell.

ESPN’s parent company Disney exited the exclusive negotiation period with a handshake deal to continue broadcasting NBA games. Meanwhile, NBC and Amazon quickly stepped in and are both negotiating NBA packages consisting of games currently owned by Warner Bros. Discovery and additional assets, according to three people familiar with the negotiations. This month, The Wall Street Journal said the league is closing deals with ESPN, NBC and Amazon that would represent about $76 billion in revenue over 11 years.

This leaves Warner Bros. Discovery on the outside looking in, generating no shortage of tension within the company.

The public face of that rancor was Barkley, whose wit and candor have made him the driving force behind TNT’s critically acclaimed coverage over the past two decades.

Barkley has publicly criticized Warner Bros. Discovery management for its handling of media rights negotiations. He supported network employees, gave interviews that the network would have preferred not to and, after Friday night’s NBA Finals game, announced that he planned to retire after the next season, Warner Bros. Discovery’s final year under the current agreement.

“Whatever happens, next year will be my last year in television,” Barkley said. “I just want to say thank you to my NBA family. You have been great to me. My heart is full of joy and gratitude. But I will pass the baton at the end of next year.”

Barkley’s surprise announcement was the latest twist in a saga that began in 2022, when Discovery purchased WarnerMedia, whose assets included networks like HBO, TNT and TBS, and formed Warner Bros. Discovery.

Many, though not all, longtime NBA executives who had worked in the NBA for WarnerMedia left the company after the Discovery purchase. This meant that many of the people the NBA had long-standing relationships with were gone. David Zaslav, who had run Discovery and is now CEO and president of Warner Bros. Discovery, hired Luis Silberwasser, a Univision executive, to run TNT Sports.

The business relationship got off to a rocky start following comments Zaslav made at an investor conference in 2022. He noted that he liked the NBA and had known Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, for 20 years. But when it came to business, Zaslav said, “We don’t have to have the NBA.”

Those comments worried Warner Bros. Discovery employees focused on its NBA assets and, when combined with reports of the company’s financial constraints, raised doubts in the league office about the company’s commitment to the NBA, according to people aware of the reaction they spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation. In a radio interview with “The Dan Patrick Show” last month, Barkley said he thinks Zaslav’s comments probably upset Silver.

Warner Bros. Discovery has the contractual right to match third party offers. It will likely try to match Amazon’s offering, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

But NBA lawyers are still trying to determine how the contract defines Warner Bros. Discovery’s gaming rights, according to two people familiar with the negotiations, given that the company would like to show many of the games on TNT and Amazon would broadcast them in streaming on Prime Video. It’s a complicated issue