Winning Time: When Did ESPN Buy the NBA’s Television Rights? How Much Did They Pay?

HBO’s ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty‘ provides viewers with a look back at the state of the NBA and basketball overall in the decades gone by. The second season premiere particularly highlights the difference in the sport between now and the 80s through the proposed deal for ESPN to purchase the television rights for the NBA. Hence, viewers must be wondering when ESPN bought the rights and how much they paid for it!

A History of NBA’s Television Rights

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the major sports leagues in North America and among the most-watched sports leagues in the world. The NBA signed a contract with the now-defunct DuMont Television Network in 1953, resulting in the league receiving the national broadcast. However, NBC took control of the television rights the following season and held them until 1962, when the NBA signed a two-year deal with Sports Network Incorporated (later known as the Hughes Television Network).

After the deal’s expiration, the rights shifted to ABC in 1964. CBS bought the national television rights after the 1972–73 season and held them until the 1989–90 season. So far, a trend was clear as the major broadcast networks mostly held the NBA’s television rights. Most of the LA Lakers’ “Showtime” era was telecast on CBS as cable television was yet to find its footing. The ‘Winning Time’ season 2 premiere hints at Jerry Buss entertaining the idea of a cable channel such as Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), launched in 1979, taking over the NBA’s television rights.

ESPN became the national cable partner of the NBA along with USA Network from 1982 to 1984. However, ESPN would have to wait decades before scoring the rights again and succeeded in 2002 with the backing of ABC. The cable sports channel currently holds the right to broadcast NBA games nationally in the USA alongside ABC and TNT.

ESPN Paid a Fortune for the Rights

In 1982, ESPN secured the television rights for the NBA on a two-year contract that saw them televise forty regular-season and ten playoff games live each season. However, the press release from ESPN did not specify the deal’s net worth. Since the USA Network signed a three-year deal worth $1.5 million in 1979, the value of the ESPN deal is likely to have exceeded that figure. In 2002, ABC and its sister network, ESPN, signed an initial six-year agreement with the NBA for the television rights in a deal reportedly worth roughly $400 million yearly, totaling $2.4 million.

However, the initial deal only allowed ESPN to broadcast 75 regular-season games per year along with other programming. The agreement was renewed in 2007, extending the television rights deal by a further eight years, valid until the end of the 2015-16 season. The eight-year broadcasting rights were reportedly sold for a figure close to $7.4 billion, split between ABC, ESPN, and TNT. However, an exact distribution of the fee paid by each broadcaster wasn’t mentioned. Nonetheless, ESPN and TNT received digital broadcast rights as a part of the deal.

In 2014, the agreement between the NBA and its broadcasting partners was again renewed and extended by nine years. The current deal expires at the end of the 2024-2025 season. The most recent agreement is reportedly valued at $2.66 billion per year, amounting to over $24 billion across a nine-year split between the three broadcasting partners. The steady increase in television rights figures shows the NBA’s popularity in the modern era.

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