TNT may implode “Inside the NBA”

Sports should be fun.  Yes, even at the professional level.

A sporting event can become quite intense at times for both the players and the fans alike.  At the professional level, athletes have progressed to the top of their sport.  They are paid handsomely to perform well and are expected to win.

Fans of professional athletes and their teams also pay handsomely to buy tickets.  For those of us watching games at home, we are forced to endure an hour of media advertisements in order to watch our favorite stars perform.

Television networks have continued to add more and more statistical data and on-camera commentary (some relevant, much of it not so much).

A missing element in most televised sports presentations has been keeping the game fun for fans.  For televised sporting events, the ability to relate to the average fan and keep sports enthusiasts entertained has been an underappreciated art form.

Since 1990, TNT’s “Inside the NBA” show has been in a league of its own

Turner Network Television’s popular “Inside the NBA” basketball coverage before, during, and after the games has become “must see TV” viewing for hoops fans.

Meshing diverse personalities on television can be tricky.  TNT’s dream team of former players serves to provide spot-on analysis in a highly entertaining way.  Their own genuine enjoyment of each other’s company on the set makes for a TV viewing treat.

NBA Hall-of-Famers Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal plus two-time NBA champion guard Kenny Smith and veteran announcer Ernie Johnson, Jr. have perfected the art of live television chemistry every night.

Barkley (nicknamed “The Round Mound of Rebound” as a player) generally starts the discussions with a few perceptive (and sometimes outlandish) comments about the game.

He is generous with his praise and very blunt with his criticism.  Barkley rarely holds anything back.

Shaquille O’Neal coyly bides his time waiting for a turn to either agree with Charles Barkley or shoot him down with pinpoint accuracy.

When the Big Fella speaks, I usually turn up the TV sound and listen.

Kenny Smith is tasked with dissecting the video highlights of the game and adding his own comments.

Much of the time, Kenny’s assessments rarely agree with Charles Barkley.   Sparks can fly – usually in fun.

Studio host Ernie Johnson functions as the moderator of this extremely entertaining basketball food fight.

He rarely interrupts the proceedings as this trio of former NBA players function like an expensive sports car smoothly cruising down the road.

This quartet has a ton of fun along the way as they joke and pick on each other through every segment of the show.

The television ratings bear it out.  TNT’s studio pregame and post-game shows regularly outdraw rival ESPN by up to one million fans per game during the NBA playoffs.

The show has won numerous Sports Emmy Awards.  Last week, Charles Barkley won “Outstanding Studio Analyst”, Ernie Johnson, Jr.  pocketed the award for “Best Studio Host” and “Inside the NBA – Playoffs edition” won best sports show.

Enjoy it today because TNT may not be televising the NBA for much longer

The NBA’s current television contracts are handled by Disney (ESPN/ABC) and Warner Brothers Discovery (TNT’s parent company).  There have been two “packages” of TV rights in previous years.  TNT has been part of the NBA’s television package since 1989.

The previous NBA TV deals were negotiated nine years ago.  Effective in 2016, ESPN and TNT (together) spent a total of $2.6 billion per year to televise NBA games.  Those deals will remain in effect for one more year through the 2024-2025 NBA season.

The NBA’s open season for bidding on future television rights has been underway recently.

Pro football’s NFL has done a masterful job at getting the largest number of competitors bidding for television rights (to bid-up the prices) and then throwing most of them a bone in the form of limited television rights.  For example, the NFL has contracts with Fox and CBS on Sunday afternoons, NBC handles Sunday evenings, ABC/ESPN is on Monday night, and now Amazon Prime has Thursday Night football.

The NBA is following the NFL’s formula and creating a third TV package

With the NBA’s lengthy 82-game regular season and three months of playoffs, the league has decided to split-up their television coverage into three separate packages beginning a year from now.  Just like the NFL has spread their TV rights, the NBA is going to ring the cash register in a big way soon.

Though no future TV deals have been officially announced yet, word has leaked that ABC/ESPN has submitted the top bid to renew its current package for $2.8 billion/year.  That is the price for just one of the NBA trio of television arrangements.   ABC/ESPN have offered to pay double the annual price which they are currently paying.

Let’s face it.  ESPN requires high profile sports programming to justify the network’s outrageous incremental cost to customers’ cable television bills.   A 2023 report indicated that ESPN is charging your local cable company more than $9 per month (which is, of course, passed along to you in your monthly bill).

Guess what will happen when ESPN pays double the current cost for NBA games?  You’ll pay more every month.

The rumor mill is suggesting that TNT’s current basketball package is going to be lost to a higher bidder.  A $2.6 billion offer has been made for TNT’s current slate of games by NBC’s parent company (NBCUniversal).   You might remember that NBC had a lengthy run of televising NBA games in the 1980’s and 1990’s during the Michael Jordan era.

A third (and brand new) television package is now being carved-out of the games which ESPN and TNT have been broadcasting for the past nine years.

A limited number of games are likely being sold to Amazon Prime for upwards of $2 billion.  The NBA’s new “In season tournament” in the fall plus the “Play-in” games along with the entire first round of playoff games will be broadcast via Amazon Prime.  Just like ESPN, the customers of Amazon Prime will likely see their monthly bills increase in return for this limited number of NBA games.

When added together, the NBA’s television revenue will balloon from the current $2.6 billion per year to more than $7 billion per year starting one year from now.

Will TNT pay-up to keep its NBA package of games?

Turner Network Television is owned by publicly-traded Warner Bros. Discovery.  The parent company’s most recent quarterly report showed a net loss of $1 billion.  Unfortunately, that negative trend was not a new occurrence.  WBD has been posting losses for the past few years.  WBD’s stock price has dropped by 30% in the past year alone and was trading around $7.50/share to start this week.

Pro basketball has been the most expensive portion of the Warner Brothers Discovery sports properties.  The NBA’s current broadcast agreement costs about $1.2 billion per year.  Compare that with $200 million being spent for the NHL and $470 million for major league baseball.  Warner splits the NCAA March Madness college basketball deal with CBS, which will increase in cost to $1.05 billion/year beginning in 2026.

If TNT’s parent company should decide to spend twice as much as it currently pays to secure the NBA rights for another term, the stock market may further punish the Warner Brothers Discovery stock.

There is a lot of pressure on the company’s top officers right now to make prudent business decisions – especially when committing scarce financial resources into a multi-year bid to renew NBA basketball on TNT.  The company’s chief financial officer recently confirmed the risk:

“It’s very easy with sports rights to burn a lot of money,” said Gunnar Wiedenfels“So, you’ve got to be disciplined and think through all the scenarios.”

 Even if TNT loses its NBA television contract, the stock market might react negatively at losing the basketball package, too.

Assuming TNT doesn’t win a contract renewal, what happens to “Inside the NBA”?

Two years ago, the TNT management team went “all in” to keep the NBA television team together as they expected to win another term.  The company re-signed the entire four-man team (Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and host Ernie Johnson, Jr.) with brand new 10-year contract extensions to cover the NBA games for TNT.

If TNT fails to win a renewal of its television broadcast rights soon, Charles Barkley’s contract gives him the right to walk away and find a new gig.  Ernie Johnson indicated that the company wants him to stick around to handle other sports (including NCAA March Madness).  Shaq and Kenny’s contract situations are unclear if TNT loses the NBA rights.

At the NBA’s executive suite, top brass understands how important this particular show has been in maintaining and building fan interest in the sport of men’s professional basketball.  The NBA’s overall television ratings have been relatively flat for several years, so the loss of this beloved fan-favorite show would be a step in the wrong direction.

Atlanta or bust?

The four hosts for TNT’s “Inside the NBA” live in the Atlanta, Georgia area.  Three of them have deep southern roots.

Charles Barkley is from the Birmingham, Alabama area and played his college basketball at Auburn.  Shaquille O’Neal grew up in San Antonio, played at LSU, and lives in the South.  Kenny Smith was raised in New York City but played professionally for the Houston Rockets in the NBA.  Studio host Ernie Johnson (whose father was a long-time broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves) has lived in the Atlanta area most of his life.

Let’s say that NBC wins the basketball rights currently held by TNT.  Would this talented broadcast team be willing to move to the NBC Sports’ headquarters in southern Connecticut to do this show?  Would NBC be willing to spend the money to build them a studio in Atlanta to keep the show there?

Charles Barkley recently quipped that he is willing to independently produce the show for another network if the contracts and logistics could be worked out.

One way or another, basketball fans around the country will be quite sad if next season becomes the swan song for TNT’s always-entertaining “Inside the NBA”.