Over the weekend, the NBA struck a massive deal with ESPN and TNT worth $24 billion between 2016 and the 2024-25 season. On its face, it's a good and obvious move—good for the NBA, good for fans, and obvious for the networks. Live sports is the lifeblood of the cable bundle, and if the NBA isn't quite the king of professional sports in the U.S., it is the beloved crown prince.
Thanks in part to the decisive leadership of commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA is the anti-NFL, a sport that fans can watch and respect at the same time. It's also the anti-MLB. As baseball ratings stumble, America's nominal pastime is bereft of national stars (Jeter is gone, and how many East Coasters would recognize Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw on a bar stool?). Meanwhile, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul are all international superstars and national spokesmen for apparel, telecom, car, and insurance companies, and the league's ratings have grown in most of the last ten years.
The economics of sports rights and television are complicated. In the current deal, ESPN and TNT pay the league an average $930 million per year for the rights to air live games and highlights. In the new deal, the networks will pay about $2.6 billion each year. The growth in rights won't be sudden, but it will be steep—around 10 percent annually, rather than an immediate 3X jump, as the average figures imply.