It’s no secret cable numbers have been steadily decreasing over the past decade. According to a graph created by Statista on Aug. 30, 2013, 100.5 million TV households paid for some sort of cable service. That number is projected to drop to 60.5 million by the end of 2023 and 47.8 million by the end of 2027.
Advances in technology have made it easier for consumers to access content. Gone are the days of NEEDING to be near a television set at a certain time to watch a certain show, or you were going to miss the show for the week. Nowadays, DVR and streaming services have made TV shows accessible anywhere, anytime, and the streaming services also provide exclusive content, giving TV consumers more things to watch than ever, depending on interest.
There’s always an exception to every rule. The exception for TV viewing: Sports.
Sports is the only content in today’s media is that viewers have to watch LIVE because it is happening in real-time, making sports content a premium for TV networks.
In 2021, the NFL signed a massive 10-year media rights deal for $100-plus million dollars. The deal not only consists of all four broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, FOX and CBS), but it also includes ESPN, NFL Network, Nickelodeon and streaming services ESPN+, Peacock, Paramount+ and Amazon Prime. The deal adds ABC to its Super Bowl rotation, giving the Disney-owned network a piece of the huge NFL pie, as well as brings Thursday Night Football to Amazon Prime, marking the first time a major pro sports organization has exclusively broadcasted major primetime games on a streaming platform.
Now, the media TV rights negotiations saga turns to WWE and the NBA.
The WWE may not necessarily be a sport depending on who you ask, but they are a 52-week-a-year, guaranteed content, something no other sport, league, or business can say. The flagship professional wrestling company in the world has three television shows: RAW, NXT, and SmackDown, all of which air new content weekly without exception.
As I began writing this piece on Sept. 21, hours before my fingers began typing out this article, WWE inked a five-deal with NBC Universal to move Friday Night SmackDown off of FOX in the fall of 2024 and bring it to the USA Network, which is owned by NBC Universal. As a part of the deal, WWE will also broadcast four special TV events per year (one for each quarter of the year) on NBC.
With SmackDown moving from broadcast to cable television for $1.4 billion over a five-year period, Monday Night RAW and NXT, which currently airs on Tuesday nights, will head to a new network. Rumors suggest both may end up on a streaming service such as Amazon Prime or in RAW’s case, a move to ABC. With WWE receiving a 40% increase from the deal they received from FOX for SmackDown five years ago, the price somebody is going to pay for RAW and/or NXT is going to be substantial and all eyes are on to see what WWE ends up going with.
In the case of the NBA, the network has been on ESPN/ABC (owned by Disney) and TNT (owned by Turner) for nearly two decades. Their media rights deal is up in two seasons, but the league is beginning to negotiate deals now. If the rumors are true, Turner is not as interested in the product as they have been in the past and will look to scale down their package. That could open the door for an NBA return to NBC, which reportedly has an interest in the league and was the primary carrier for the Association during the Michael Jordan era in the 1990s. It could also open up the rights to streamers, such as what MLB has done with Apple TV and Peacock.
There are endless ways to consume content in the 2020s and sports leagues are taking advantage. Getting their product on television more, either by broadcast, cable or streaming, means more primetime games for teams, which means more product exposure, as well as more money for the league, owners, teams, coaches, staff and players.
However, negotiating TV deals can become a game of chicken. Leagues/organizations know what their product is worth. We’ve seen what the NFL received for their product. WWE just received the max of what USA Network could pay for their ‘A’ show. Now, we sit and wait to see where RAW and NXT land on the WWE front and how the NBA ultimately splits up its NBA coverage.
Going into WWE negotiating for their TV rights, I did not expect FOX to pay the money WWE was looking for SmackDown (even though they should have because of how FOX has dominated Friday nights over the past half-decade), but I did not expect WWE to return its blue brand to cable. With WWE’s relationships with NBC Universal and Disney, I was expecting NBC or ABC to be the landing spot for the company’s Friday night show, with RAW and NXT both staying on USA Network, who would up the money on the current contract. Now, with SmackDown heading to USA, RAW and NXT could virtually go anywhere.
WWE has never been afraid of streaming services. After all, they’re the ones that essentially launched the era of streaming with the WWE Network in 2014 that eventually sold to NBC Universal’s Peacock in 2021. I think there’s a chance RAW will end up on Amazon Prime, but I think it’s more than likely both RAW and NXT end up on FX, the cable channel owned by Disney. There’s too much smoke between WWE and Disney for there to not be some sort of deal, and I do not see WWE moving RAW off Monday nights just to go to ABC (ABC airs Monday Night Football on the network during football seasons) and neither Prime or ABC will pay for NXT, which is WWE’s developmental brand. The move to FX could open RAW to return to a TV-14 rating and/or reduce the show back to two hours like SmackDown.
As for the NBA, I envision the league leaning into ESPN as its primary carrier, with occasionally games being put on TNT, NBC, Peacock and Apple TV. This is the way I envision the NBA setting up its primetime schedule:
- Mondays: None
- Tuesdays: Apple TV
- Wednesdays: ESPN
- Thursdays: TNT (January-April)
- Fridays: ESPN
- Saturdays: ABC (January-April)
- Sundays: NBC (February-April) (Doubleheaders potentially on Peacock).
- NBATV (Simulcasts of home-team broadcasts throughout the season, with occasional exclusive broadcasts)
ABC will replace TNT as the carrier of All-Star Weekend, putting the events on broadcast television. The In-Season Tournament will share broadcast rights between ESPN/ABC and TNT. For the postseason, games will be available on ESPN, ABC, NBC (simulcasts on Peacock), NBATV (first-round) and TNT (first two rounds). ESPN and NBC will alternate conferences for the Conference Finals just like how ESPN and TNT do now. ABC will exclusively host the NBA Finals.