If Warner Brothers Discovery loses broadcast rights to the NBA, the greatest studio program in the history of sports may cease to exist

NBA

“Inside the NBA” is the lone current studio program for any sport that qualifies as high-level, satisfying entertainment in its own right.

Charles Barkley is a one-of-one commentator on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”

A year ago this month, Boston University students booed and picketed commencement speaker David Zaslav, the Warner Brothers Discovery CEO who was a pivotal figure in the soulless corporate ways during the Writers Guild of America strike at the time.

The jeers he heard that day will seem as serene as Walden Pond compared to the backlash he will deserve and hopefully receive if he loses the broadcast rights to the NBA — thus ending the greatest studio program in the history of televised sports, “Inside the NBA” — during ongoing negotiations with the league.

Here’s where negotiations on the new rights deal stand. The NBA, which has longstanding partnerships with ESPN/ABC (owned by Disney) and TNT Sports (owned by Warner Brothers Discovery), intends to add a third partner to focus on streaming.

Last month, multiple outlets reported that the framework of a deal was in place with Disney and streaming service Amazon Prime to be two of the partners, beginning with the 2025-26 season and running for at least a decade. That left WBD and NBCUniversal contending for the third partnership.

TNT’s history with the NBA practically runs parallel with the cable channel’s existence. Their first contract commenced in October 1988, a year after TNT launched. The partnership has been uninterrupted.

But the NBA has a history with NBC, too, most recently from 1990-2002. (Bet you can hear the “Roundball Rock” theme in your head right now.) And NBC is so determined to get back in the NBA game that it has reportedly offered $2.5 billion per year for a share of the rights.

If TNT loses the NBA, NBC would seem a decent alternative overall, and there is speculation in the industry that NBC already has the deal locked up. But true NBA fans don’t want an alternative, as competent as it may prove to be. Because it would likely mean the end of “Inside the NBA,” the lone current studio program for any sport that qualifies as high-level, satisfying entertainment in its own right.

Host Ernie Johnson and analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal have the kind of chemistry that other studio programs are desperate to replicate and never do. (How many incarnations of “NBA Countdown” has ESPN gone through in the quest to approximate what “Inside the NBA” has? Many, many incarnations.)

Barkley is a force of personality, self-deprecating, and genuinely hilarious, a one-of-one as a commentator. But it’s Johnson, who simultaneously keeps the show from careening off the rails while also participating in the humor and hijinks, who makes it work.

During an appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show” on May 3, Barkley said that he would become a free agent if WBD and TNT lost the NBA, but he wasn’t sure of the contract status of Smith and O’Neal. Barkley said that Johnson, who has been the lead host for TNT’s NBA coverage for 35 years, intends to stay at the network. (His father, Ernie Johnson Sr., was a Braves broadcaster during TBS’s early days, so working under the former Turner umbrella is the family business.)

It’s unlikely if WBD and TNT lose the NBA that Barkley, Smith, and O’Neal would be a package deal for another network. The bottom line seems to be this: If WBD doesn’t retain the NBA, a studio show unlike any other in all the right ways, one that is part of the fabric of the NBA, will cease to be.

When Barkley made his comments on “The Dan Patrick Show,” he noted that a decision could come soon, perhaps as soon as that day. More than a week later, no announcement has come.

Perhaps the deal is already in place with NBC. Or perhaps Zaslav, who has on multiple occasions, although not recently, said that WBD does not need the NBA, has recognized what he’s about to lose.

During a WBD earnings call on Thursday, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Zaslav said he remained hopeful for a deal that “makes sense for both sides.”

“We’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this negotiation, and we have strategies in place for the various potential outcomes,” Zaslav said. “However, now is not the time to discuss any of this since we are in active negotiations with the league. And under our current deal with the NBA, we have matching rights that allow us to match third-party offers before the NBA enters into an agreement with them.”

WBD currently pays $1.2 billion for NBA broadcast rights. Zaslav’s options are to lose the NBA and anger fans that have enjoyed the network’s coverage for more than three decades, or pay at least twice the current rate (based on NBCUniversal’s $2.5 billion offer) for what is likely to be a smaller package of games considering Amazon’s involvement.

Zaslav, who has received camera time recently on TNT’s broadcasts from his courtside seats at Knicks playoff games — purely coincidental, I’m sure — is caught between a roundball rock and a hard place.

There are valid financial reasons not to match the NBCUniversal offer. But should Zaslav’s decision lead to the end of “Inside the NBA” as we know it, he deserves to be jeered like he was at BU any time he is in the vicinity of an NBA arena.


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