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Can TNT Survive Without the NBA? Analyzing Charles Barkley’s Exposé on the Media Giant’s Underlying Anxiety

Published 05/14/2024, 8:00 AM EDT

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Could the NBA broadcasts come a full circle? TNT and ESPN were among the early broadcasters who brought pro basketball on cable TV. When Michael Jordan made the NBA games a hot commodity, NBC had a monopoly over its live broadcasts. Then Jordan was retiring and the rights went to ESPN and TNT. That deal is expiring soon and the future broadcasting contract is already underway. With streaming giants entering the sports media business, Charles Barkley said that TNT was feeling insecure until the Turner boss said the network could survive without the NBA.

Maybe the TNT execs were preparing to come to terms with the inevitable because reports have surfaced that a new deal has been struck. A deal that ousts TNT and puts NBC back in the driver’s seat of live games. It’s a different world from when NBC was last involved in live NBA broadcasts. Would they be able to keep up?

It’s going to be a different NBA

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ESPN and TNT began broadcasting NBA games from the 2002-03 season, better known as the season Jordan retired. After that, the NBA had stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. For the first time since then, not one of the dominant trio of the 2010s is in the second round of the playoffs. Before we start questioning their longevity, the current NBA media rights deal will expire with the 2024-25 season and the new one will be announced after these playoffs.

Before the bidding war began, Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav said in 2022, “We don’t need the NBA.” And its own Emmy-winning studio analyst of its Emmy-winning sports show, Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley said that TNT was scared of Amazon and Apple bidding over the NBA.

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Ahead of the NBA officially announcing which network it is going with, rumors have surfaced that NBC has already won the bid. Business-wise, yes, it makes sense for the NBA to pick them. NBC is willing to pay $2.5 billion annually, more than twice that of TNT paying $1.2 billion in annual fees. TNT would have to pony up at least $2.8 billion to counter NBC’s aggressive deal and secure a $76 billion contract with the NBA, as per these reports.

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The new deal would be in effect after 2025. But that would be a drastically different NBA and its broadcast then. For starters, Amazon Prime is now also among the NBA partners. Something akin to what it’s done with NFL broadcasts, the streaming platform is close to eliminating human analysts using AI-generated analysis. Sure, it’s slow and inaccurate still, but it’s different. For the more human touch, we have to wait and see which network the NBA is going with officially.

When the NBA (possibly) airs on NBC, we might be missing most of the biggest stars on the court as there are still doubts about whether James, Curry, or Durant have much left. Or we might not be able to imagine how the players will rank on something like Shaqtin a Fool. Because a new network would have to match or offer a better contract to poach the Inside Guys out of TNT. At least Chuck’s contract is worth $100 million. A hefty ask on top of $2.5 billion to maintain the status quo.

What will the NBA broadcasts look like?

TNT has been broadcasting NBA games since 1988 and Inside the NBA has been at the core of it since 1989. The soul of that is Ernie Johnson, who earned a long overdue induction into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2023. Ernie has hosted the show for 35 years with a number of NBA veterans like Reggie Miller and Magic Johnson. The current quartet has been in place since Shaquille O’Neal retired from the NBA and joined TNT simultaneously in 2011.

In 2022, even with Zaslav claiming they will survive without the NBA, the network signed multi-million contract extensions with the Inside Guys. But Charles Barkley included a ‘free agency’ clause. If the NBA leaves TNT, Chuck has the option to get out of his contract. He’s not revealed if it’s the same for Shaq or Kenny “The Jet” Smith too but he knows that’s not the case for Ernie.

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Ernie has multiple duties at TNT, including their MLB broadcasts alongside basketball. He will, for all intents and purposes, end his career at TNT. Very unlikely that he’d jump ship to NBC for their incarnation of Inside the NBA.

So for those hoping that the show will continue on NBA, it’s time to prepare for the inevitable. Barkley last year reiterated his plans to retire from sportscasting at the same time as the current media rights deal expiring. He would only consider going to another network if Ernie is with him. And maybe he’ll tolerate Shaq and Kenny too. But as mentioned before, Ernie will not be able to part with TNT that easily.

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Will it be retirement for the pros-turned-analysts? Hence NBA broadcasts in the future could be missing part or all of the Inside Guys together if it’s not on TNT. This makes the viewers of the show that made Inside the NBA the biggest losers.

Editorial DisclaimerThe views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EssentiallySports.

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Written by:

Caroline John

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Caroline John is a senior NBA writer at EssentiallySports. She holds a Masters degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from a reputed university. With 8 years of experience in content writing and after judiciously covering the life of Shaquille O’Neal, she earned an exclusive interview with the CEO of Shaq’s Big Chicken franchise, Josh Halpern.
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Edited by:

Pragya Vashisth