In news that was leaked over the weekend and made official on Monday morning, the NBA has confirmed it will sign a broadcast and Internet rights deal with ABC/ESPN and Turner that would stroll on to the 2024-25 season. The agreement, which tips off during the 2016-17 campaign, will pay the league and its teams almost $2.7 billion per season, nearly tripling the number both media entities currently dole out in a contract that was signed during the NBA’s least entertaining era in its history.
The league’s Monday morning news conference featured league commissioner Adam Silver, ESPN president John Skipper, Turner president David Levy and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, and was an expected, back-slapping affair. The four titans of their respective industries congratulated themselves on their good fortune in retaining rights for the same teams that have broadcast the NBA since 2002, while Silver deftly kept outrageous optimism in check in advance of what should be escalating player salary rates and a potential labor dispute between the league and its players in 2017.
For all the similarities in partnership, the deal should and will truly shake the league to its core. Between the tripling of television revenue and the ascending valuation of NBA franchises, this is a great time to be one of 30 NBA owners.
What does that mean for the rest of this particular picture?
Though not everyone can afford a high-definition TV, a massive DVR, or the NBA’s League Pass package, those at-home rates are still dwarfed by the cost to attend games in person in most markets. While that’s not always true for some of the league’s smaller fan bases, sitting in front of the cathode tube ray to take in either a nationally televised broadcast or a “local” affiliate’s work (most cable systems have very odd ways of determining which fan lives in what team’s “country”) is the cheapest and oftentimes most rewarding experience.
There is a reason the top-rated television program nets only a fraction of the viewers that tuned in for the similarly ranked program from a few decades ago, and yet rates for televised sports are bringing in billions of dollars. People watch live sports, and they’ll sit through endless commercial breaks in order to keep in touch with these live sports. Even those of us who attempt to game the system while tuning in a half-hour late via Tivo in order to fast forward through commercials will still be taking in car insurance and chain restaurant ads by the time the second half hits, and both advertisers and television stations are more than aware of this. I’ve seen every episode of Conan O’Brien’s various talk shows since 1996, but I haven’t seen a single commercial on his show since 2004. By the end of the NBA Finals, though, I could more or less act out each of the NBA’s commercials by memory. Such is the live experience.
That’s an annoying give and take for the common fan, but the push-back is the availability. With NBA TV becoming a standard fixture on basic cable packages and ESPN, ABC and TNT already working within the realm of those packages, fans can basically take in a game a night. TNT is amping up its coverage, and ESPN is exploring ways of selling off live games to those that don’t have cable because of providers’ well-heeled reluctance to deliver a la carte packages to selective consumers.
The NBA is still selling off its digital rights to an outside party, to the dismay of many (to put it mildly) who find the online League Pass package more than lacking. How the league manages being able to reach out to a generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings who long ago swore off cable television, and yet still have interest in following the sport will be one of the defining moves of Adam Silver’s career. The NBA cannot afford to encourage scads of would-be consumers to eschew watching the actual game, preferring to click a link or two once the online reaction sets in.
Certain traits might annoy regular viewers, and certain announcers and talking heads might grate certain sensibilities, but by and large both the ABC and Turner families have put together a solid product. TNT has its mainstay "Inside the NBA" crew, in place since Charles Barkley made a cameo with Ernie Johnson Jr. and Kenny Smith late in the 1999-00 season, and while ESPN’s studio team remains in flux, the network did well to bring Bill Simmons on set – you might disagree with his analysis, but you also get the feeling he’s actually watching games in the days between Sunday’s national telecasts. That’s not a feeling you get from other, recently disposed members of the "ESPN Countdown" crew.
Turner’s rotating blend of announcers and analysts will be hit hard by Steve Kerr’s decision to take over as Golden State Warriors coach, and they would do well to attempt to dive down into the local ranks to hire one of the many local NBA announcers and analysts who are more than ready for national prime time. ESPN remains frustratingly staid as it continues to employ the catchphrase nonsense of Mark Jackson alongside the call-in radio hot-takin’ of Jeff Van Gundy – especially when their junior varsity team of Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown is far superior.
The league will continue to relegate, in a way, the NBA to the cable ranks, as the amount of Sunday afternoon games televised by ABC during the regular season will remain low in comparison to NBC’s run of things. In the face of a generation that isn’t bothering to pay for ABC or ESPN, though, this might not matter. With the league also paying for increased digital documentation in the form of SportVU cameras, the game might look a whole lot more interesting as we work our way toward 2025. One would hope Jeff Van Gundy would stop complaining about fouls by then.
Outside of the addition of a few klieg lights for national broadcasts, the game itself won’t change all that much. Players will still have to tip off for the odd contest, playoff or regular season, at noon Bristol-time, but that’s a tradition that dates back decades and won’t be changing any time soon. The implementation of camera after camera, with all manner of bio-meters possibly being attached to players to establish more and more data does bring up privacy concerns for some, but no player has raised a hackle heretofore.
The immediate question, in the wake of Silver’s news conference, is how the league will handle the influx of new revenue, and just how smoothly it will implement that money into its collectively bargained promise to send 51 percent of all basketball-related income to the players. The soft salary cap is currently stuck at just over $63 million, moving incrementally higher through the years, but when the league triples its broadcast rights agreement in 2016, that number should fly way, way up.
In theory, yes. The NBA often works with a demeaning, patriarchal line of thinking, however, and it may attempt to convince the league’s players’ union that such a jump in salary is somehow not a good thing for its players. That it’s not fair to its current batch of superstars, working on “maximum” contracts under the current television agreement, would have to see a second batch of stars make in upwards of $10 million more per season just by virtue of their timing.
This is all, of course, an absolute crock.
The “our-players-will-eventually-get-their-51-percent” line of thinking is bogus. There will not be out-and-out anarchy because of a massive salary cap jump in 2016, as most teams are rolling over cap space and flexibility from summer to summer anyway. We don’t live in an era where a player will pout endlessly, a la Shawn Kemp in Seattle, because he signed a contract for too many years and a more recent free-agent teammate is making more. The NBA has sought and won the right to limit lengths on contracts in the past three collective bargaining agreements, it won the rights to maximum contracts in the first of those three negotiations and it’s inappropriate at best (and un-American at worst) for the league to attempt to, in Adam Silver’s words, “smooth out” this revenue distribution the players have earned.
If outposts in Washington, New York or Brooklyn suddenly have enough money to tempt Kevin Durant … so what? That’s not an actual problem. Oklahoma City’s current failure to surround him with championship-level talent, and coaching missteps – those are the problems, here. If LeBron James signs for more money per year than Michael Jordan made at his peak … so what? James might be the best player ever, and 1997 is pretty far removed from 2016. If the league abhors chaos and free spending, then it should have just decided to re-sign with ESPN and Turner for the same amount that it’s currently receiving.
Of course, the owners would never agree to such a thing. They’re allowed to make money, make mistakes, spend when they want and pull paychecks when they decide things are getting out of hand. You will likely see some owners, fearful about their other interests, deciding to cash in on the massive (and in some ways, pessimistic and incorrect) valuations on their franchise, and sell their team to whatever new One Percenter wants a shiny toy.
By and large, though, most owners will want to hang out near this money tree. Because, again, sports are the only thing on TV people consistently watch live.
The front offices
In pure basketball terms, this is the most intriguing aspect of the new deal.
The salary cap has barely moved until this season, when it doubled the amount of its previous shift in the nine years before to vault to over $63 million. Considering a contract worth around $6 or $7 million yearly to be an “average deal” has been a go-to benchmark for years, and outside of weird and grandfathered-in outliers like Kobe Bryant’s contract or the baffling obsession over Joe Johnson, teams have enjoyed a relative amount of fiscal sanity. More on that later.
What front offices will have to do, whether this new revenue is gradually added to the pot if there is a massive 2016 uptick, is ignore the devil perched on their left shoulders. And usually that devil comes in the form of their boss, wearing a foam finger and bored in July when all his other country-club buddies are out having fun while acquiring Joe Johnson.
Scouting and executive work in the NBA has never been better, but the same could be said for the escalating intelligence of NBA front offices from 2005-10, when executives signed an endless amount of bad deals that led to those owners locking players out in 2011 in order to save themselves from themselves. NBA general managers are going to have to temper their nastier instincts and keep ownership at arm’s length, because it is just as important to scout properly, pay properly and sustain flexibility whether your salary cap is at $63 million or $83 million.
The NBA and its players’ union avoided a lockout in 2005. The league and the NBPA head managed to come up with a few needed tweaks to the collective bargaining agreement that expired that year, keeping both sides happy and ensuring labor peace.
Of course, not all that much changed in the NBA between that agreement, and the previous one that was struck in the first month of 1999. That CBA provided such a fundamental shift in the league’s approach to revenue – effectively creating three subsets of player salaries while limiting the abilities for its superstars to earn what they should in a free market – that the NBA was in a way still reeling from the environment the agreement created.
Between 2005 and '11, however, quite a bit changed. Owners and general managers signed a series of overarching contracts with middling or even All-Star-type players who didn’t deserve them, general managers refused to utilize the bargaining tools the league initiated in previous agreements that would help them keep things sane, and a lockout resulted.
And, now, with the NBA tripling its national television payments in 2016, a year before the players can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement, we’re expecting things to sail “smoothed out?”
The players should have opted out of this CBA the second after they signed it, because they took in a raw deal as governed by a union executive director who was then voted out. Just because Adam Silver is a smart man of sound mind, it doesn’t mean he cannot be swayed by those who he is charged with representing – the NBA owners, 30 men who decided popcorn vendors didn’t need any jobs at NBA games in the weeks leading up to Christmas, because they made a bad deal with Josh Childress a few years before.
This is the summation of an obvious cynic, but because so much can change between now and 2017, and because so much will be hot-rodded once the money hits in 2016, one has to assume things could go pear-shaped.
That’s if Adam Silver lets it work that way, of course. The check is in the mail, and the ball is in his court.
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