Leagues, Broadcasters Reflect on Skyrocketing Rights Deals, Importance of Quality Storytelling

Nearly every major U.S. pro sports league and college sports body has engineered massive new rights deals within the past five years, including Major League Baseball, the NFL, NHL, Major League Soccer, U.S. Open golf and tennis tournaments, and the college football and basketball postseason organizing bodies, just to name a few. And those that have yet to do so, such as the NBA, are on the precipice of inking massive colossal rights agreements of their own in the coming years. Through this flurry of agreements, one thing has become clear: when it comes of programming, live sports content is prized above all else.

From left: MLS' Gary Stevenson, NBA's Mark Tatum, Turner Sports' Lenny Daniels, HBO Sports' Ken Hershman, and Sporting News Media's Juan Delgado

From left: MLS’ Gary Stevenson, NBA’s Mark Tatum, Turner Sports’ Lenny Daniels, HBO Sports’ Ken Hershman, and Sporting News Media’s Juan Delgado

“Clearly the landscape of sports rights and media has changed,” said Mark Tatum, Deputy Commissioner and COO, NBA, at the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan on Wednesday. “We are the last of the big sports proprieties to have these negotiations and what the market has said is that the value of live sports programing is incredible. It’s as close to a sure thing as you can get.”

NBA Set For Big Pay Day
The NBA, which is reportedly looking to double the value of its current deals that run through the end of the 2015-16 season, remains a ratings giant – especially when it comes to the postseason. Tatum referenced the fact that the NBA Finals games on ABC have been the top-rated program on television 42 games in a row and that 75-80% of NBA Playoffs games on ESPN and TNT consistently rank as the most-viewed programs on cable. The task now for ESPN and Turner Sports, which are still in an exclusive negotiating window with the league, is to retain those rights for years to come.

“This negotiation is very interesting. It will be about all the typical things you think about, but in the end, it’s a partnership that really does work and goes beyond just NBA games to our NBA Digital partnership,” said Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. “What makes this [rights negotiation] different is that we have had a relationship with [the NBA] for a quarter of a century. It goes beyond rights deals and money and it’s really about a partnership and friendship. We can get through many things that I think would be otherwise very difficult to get through.”

Thursday Night Football: A Franchise in the Making

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus (left) and NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp (center) provided a look at the new Thursday Night Football package with moderator Dave Morgan, President of USA Today Sports Media Group.

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus (left) and NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp (center) provided a look at the new Thursday Night Football package with moderator Dave Morgan, President of USA Today Sports Media Group.

Perhaps the most surprising rights deal this year came in February, when CBS landed the NFL’s revamped Thursday Night Football package for reportedly upwards of $250 million for a single season. The Tiffany network will air eight Thursday night games over the first half of the season (simulcast on NFL Network), while NFL Network will carry eight later in the season.

“We wanted to expand the notoriety of the package as well as a lift to the NFL Network. We have had Thursday Night Football since 2006 with eight games on the NFL Network and expanded that 13 games in 2012 and we did that methodically and strategically for a reason – to make sure it could work competitively,” said NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp. “We knew Thursday could be a primetime NFL night and once we knew that the question was how to make it bigger. That led us to broadcast TV and eventually to [CBS].”

During at TNF session at the Summit, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus recounted how when Rolapp first alerted him that the package was up for bid, he was on vacation and actually thought Rolapp was referring to a package for the 2015 season. In fact, it was for 2014, forcing CBS to quickly put together an RFP that could win the league over. In the end, McManus believes CBS’s plan to promote the package thoroughly on its plethora of media platforms proved to be the deciding factor.

“The satisfying and different thing about this negotiation, was that the NFL was [interested] in, aside from our financial bid, how we were going to produce it, position it, and promote it,” said McManus. “We came up with a promotional plan that involved all the assets of CBS, whether it’s radio, cable, digital, the broadcast TV network, or Showtime. I think it’s fair to say, this is the most extensive promotional effort ever launched by CBS and I think that got the attention of the NFL.”

MLS Firms Up Schedule With New Rights Deal
Although nowhere near the billions that the NBA and NFL generate from rights agreements, Major League Soccer (along with U.S. Soccer) also made a major rights splash of its own in May – inking eight-year deals with ESPN, Fox, and Univision for a combined $90 million per year (five times higher than the average annual value of the league’s current media deals with ESPN, NBC, and Univision). As part of the new deals, Univison will air a national game of the week on Friday, ESPN and Fox will present back-to-back national games Sunday, and all other regional telecasts will take place Saturday.

“One of the most important issues for us was creating some regularity in our schedule,” said Gary Stevenson, President and Managing Director, MLS Business Ventures. “If you look at our schedule this year we have games on six days and 27 different start times. We had to fix that… so we are very proud of the deal. It’s hard to say goodbye to NBC, they have helped promote our league and produce our games well. But our new partners have adopted the idea of regularly scheduled programming. They really want to be our marketing and scheduling partners.”

HBO Sports’ Original Programming Dominance
With the exception of boxing, HBO is not much of player in the live-sports-programming game. However, the premium channel has continued to cultivate its role as a leader in original programming, such as sports documentaries and behind-the-scenes programming like Hard Knocks and 24/7.

“We can’t be in this game – I wish we could – but we can’t be in this game for rights for the NBA or NFL so we have to find our niche and our way to fit in,” said HBO Sports President Ken Hershman. “And I think ancillary programming is really the way to do it. Hard Knocks with the NFL and 24/7 with the NHL and boxing and all the shoulder programming we do around our boxing really take our sports we are involved in and disseminate them to the widest possible audience.”

Greenburg Stresses Need for Quality Storytelling

Ross Greenburg's opening keynote kicked things off the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit.

Ross Greenburg’s opening keynote kicked things off the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit.

An integral force in building HBO into the original programming titan it is today was former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, who launched his own documentary-focused production company after leaving the network three years ago. During his opening keynote at the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit, in which he touched on everything from his fond memories of NFL Films President Steve Sabol to a preview of Ross Greenburg Productions’ new EPIX original documentary Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football, Greenburg preached the concept that, regardless of changes in technology and consumption habits, there will always be a place for quality content and storytelling.

“Here we are in 2014 and I don’t care how many distribution mechanisms there are for all this content, I don’t care what the next invention is to watch on a smaller and more mobile screen, it all comes back to… shows that people actually want to watch,” he said. “Because I don’t care who you are or what shows you have done in the past, you are only as good as your last one. And you better come up with some new programming that people want to see. And if your brand stands for quality you have the chance to build something very special.”