TNT Sports’ boss said they didn’t need the NBA — we’re about to find out


One of the core aspects of basketball is trash talk. It has seemingly been part of the game since Dr. Naismith taped up his first peach basket in 1891 at Springfield College: If you talk the talk, you have to back it up.

That is why Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s diss track from 2022 is underpinning the sudden jump ball between Zaslav’s TNT Sports and NBC for the last NBA TV rights deal that is still up for grabs. Two years ago, Zaslav dunked on NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s league.

“We don’t have to have the NBA,” said Zaslav, who is reportedly paid like an NBA star at nearly $50 million a year, during an RBC investor conference.

Zaslav’s words zinged the ears of Silver and NBA executives. It has left Zaslav and TNT Sports fighting for their NBA lives with a Faustian choice.

Zaslav can either show fiscal restraint and lose the NBA to NBC, puncturing TNT Sports in the process, or he can pay the reported $2.5 billion per season asking price for a lesser package than he currently owns, proving that he does need the NBA.

Any deal for TNT or NBC is expected to include a conference final every other year, as opposed to TNT’s current setup of every season. Either network is anticipated to hold onto the yearly All-Star Game broadcast.

At this point, it seems apparent that ESPN’s chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Amazon Prime Video’s top sports executive Jay Marine, and their bosses — who are already at the negotiation’s medal stand waiting for the third winner — have done a better job than Zaslav and his top lieutenants.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by The Athletic, ESPN will pay $2.6 billion each season for the NBA Finals and conference finals, while Amazon Prime Video will receive a conference final every other year and is expected to be in the $1.8 billion-per-year range.

Meanwhile, NBC is sitting there, aggressively going after Zaslav’s deal. It is a multi-faceted corporate move by Comcast-owned NBC that would reunite the league with its Michael Jordan-era partner and “Roundball Rock” theme song and comes with an already set one-two play-by-play punch of Mike Tirico and Noah Eagle.


David Zaslav in November. (Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for The New York Times)

While cable may be dwindling, Comcast is still in the business. If Zaslav and TNT Sports no longer air NBA games, Comcast could conceivably attempt to drop the price of its roughly $3 per month fee on subscribers. It could add up to millions in savings for Comcast.

Meanwhile, NBC is offering to put games on its broadcast network, where they could fit snugly after “Sunday Night Football” ends in early January. NBC also wants the NBA to prop up its subscription streamer, Peacock. And, although not the incumbent, the NBA may prefer NBC as its teammate for this package.

While TNT Sports has broadcast the NBA for nearly four decades, it includes countless employees with long-term NBA ties and boasts Charles Barkley and the iconic “Inside the NBA” studio show, NBCUniversal chairman Mark Lazarus is the media executive with the long-term relationship with the league.

From 1999 to 2003, Lazarus headed TNT Sports. During that time, the network hired Barkley, arguably the greatest sports studio analyst of all time.

Lazarus also developed strong relationships with Silver and NBA chief rights negotiator Bill Koenig.

At Turner, Lazarus ascended to the head of Turner Entertainment, overseeing all of their programming from TNT to TBS. By 2008, though, he was fired.

He went on to resurrect his career with NBC, where he now sits atop NBCUniversal Media Group.

“Both NBC and me, personally, have long histories with the NBA from my Turner years,” Lazarus said at the IMG Summit last September. “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.”

The process is ongoing, and it is hard to see how Zaslav wins. If he pays top dollar to keep a lesser package, he will dishonor his words about not needing the NBA, even if he has since tried to walk them back somewhat, professing his love for the league. If he loses the NBA, what becomes of TNT Sports, even if it still has MLB, the NCAA Tournament, NHL and NASCAR?

TNT’s NBA history is stellar, and many of the people who built it remain with the network, waiting by their phones to find out what the future holds. They are at the ground level grinding, while Zaslav is at the games.

During New York Knicks first-round playoff games, TNT showed Zaslav sitting courtside when it did its celebrity roll call. Those things don’t happen by accident; especially, and notably, on the late-April night the network’s exclusive negotiations rights window was closing.

TNT’s coverage is iconic because of all the memorable moments with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Barkley. But the words that may define it, if this is the end of an era, could belong to Zaslav, who, at last resort, may also prove those words were hollow if he tries to prevent NBC from completing the steal.

Zaslav talked trash, but Silver has the ball, and the commissioner may decide who he wants to take the final shot.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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(Top photo of the “Inside the NBA” crew in Denver for the 2023-24 season tipoff game: Jamie Schwaberow / NBAE via Getty Images)





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