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ESPN Isn't Worrying About Losing the NBA to Fox Sports - But Turner Should Be

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The TV rights showdown over the NBA will accelerate in the coming weeks/months, and many in the media are portraying the battle as ESPN vs. Fox Sports.

One problem: Although it makes for a great headline, those aren’t the two networks to keep an eye on.

There’s virtually no chance ESPN is losing the NBA.

Turner? That’s another story.

The real bidding war will take place between Turner and Fox Sports, multiple industry sources tell The Big Lead. The NBA’s current TV deals with ABC/ESPN and TNT run through the 2015-2016 season. But the next TV deal is expected to be complete by early next year, with discussions expected to intensify in February, after Adam Silver takes over as commish for David Stern.

Turner has been with the NBA since 1988, runs NBA TV out of Atlanta, and according to NBA spokesperson Tim Frank, Turner jointly manages NBA.com.

Fox Sports 1 has TV rights for college football and the NFL, but adding the NBA is an absolute must for the nascent channel to expand its live sports portfolio. FS1 does have college basketball and soccer, but a partnership with the NBA would provide steady programming from November-May. With no other major sports TV rights on the immediate horizon (see chart below), the big winner, of course, will be the NBA.

sports tv rightsHalf a dozen industry insiders who spoke to The Big Lead for this story envision one of three scenarios happening:

1) Fox backing up the brinks with a blank check and stealing everything from Turner.

That’s the doomsday scenario for Turner. But the NBA is already spreading word to likely bidders that it loves how the NFL is everywhere – ESPN, CBS, NBC, Fox – and it seems unlikely the NBA would completely bail on Turner for a variety of reasons (longtime partnership, NBA.com, NBA TV, and let’s not forget the best pre-game and post-game show in basketball.)

2) Fox, which plans on being very aggressive in negotiations – remember 1994, when it overpaid for the NFL to establish credibility? – “settles” for just taking all of the games Turner has – but doesn’t touch the website or NBA TV. Fox’s big selling point is expected to be: We’ll package games on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports.

The counter play here for Turner would be partnering with longtime ally CBS. A few years ago, when ESPN came after the NCAA tournament, CBS leaned on Turner to put together a package and retain the NCAA tournament. Could this mean the NBA returns to CBS? Their once-glorious partnership ended in 1990. (Nostalgia alert: Man, the 80s and the NBA and Musburger! Loved these intros.) That back-and-forth would lead to the most likely scenario …

3) Fox Sports gets half of Turner’s games, and allows Turner to keep Inside the NBA, NBA TV, and the website.

This would be a double win for the NBA – more money and more exposure. Fox Sports is going to be getting NBA games, that’s a virtual given. The NBA has a great relationship with Turner, and even though money trumps all when it comes to these type of negotiations, I don’t expect Turner to lose all of its games.

What becomes of NBC?

While NBC claims it wants to be a bidder for NBA games, will the money be there? It spent lavishly on hockey, and more recently, on NASCAR. (Turner saved money bailing on NASCAR, just like ESPN.) It seems unlikely the peacock network will be a serious contender.

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Related: Fox Sports 1 Sure Has a Lot of Blonde Female Talent

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