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‘It sucks for all of us.’ Charles Barkley says the quiet part aloud as TNT’s NBA future in doubt

<i>Mitchell Layton/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley on air before the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the North Carolina State Wolfpack at State Farm Stadium on April 06
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley on air before the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the North Carolina State Wolfpack at State Farm Stadium on April 06

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — The situation at Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT network “sucks, plain and simple,” Charles Barkley bluntly said Thursday.

The former NBA star and “Inside the NBA” co-host was speaking on “The Dan Patrick Show” about the increasing likelihood that the network will soon lose the rights to air the league’s games next year, a prospect that could mark the end of the beloved show on the Turner network. Barkley, who said he feels “so bad for the people” he works with, laid blame at the feet of the “clowns” atop WBD.

“These people I work with, they screwed this thing up — clearly,” Barkley unloaded. The host did little to hide his anger as he cited WBD boss David Zaslav’s now-infamous 2022 comment that the company didn’t “have to have the NBA,” suggesting the remark likely “pissed” off NBA commissioner Adam Silver and helped lead to the current situation.

“It sucks for all of us,” Barkley added.

The uncertainty and fear voiced by Barkley comes as the NBA moves to renew its broadcast rights with media partners, seeking a significant increase in the cost to air the league’s games. WBD, the parent company of CNN and the Turner networks, had an exclusive negotiating window with the NBA to renew its contract, but it expired last month without a deal, allowing other media companies to bid for the broadcast rights.

Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported Thursday night that the NBA had asked WBD for $2.3 billion to secure the highly coveted rights, roughly $1 billion more than it reportedly pays under its current deal to air the games on TNT, its streaming service Max, and other cable networks. During the negotiation, Zaslav “topped out around” $2.1 billion, Shaw reported.

“The league got up from the table and walked right into the arms of Comcast and Amazon,” Shaw wrote.

NBCU, which appears poised to snatch the rights from WBD, offered $2.5 billion a year for the package of games, The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Flint, Amol Sharma, and Isabella Simonetti first reported last month. The NBCU offer also includes airing the games on its broadcast network, something that WBD does not have, given that its linear television portfolio only includes cable channels.

Wall Street has responded quite negatively to the possibility WBD, which has built a programming slate around the NBA, could lose the rights to air the games. When The WSJ first broke news about NBCU’s bid, WBD’s stock price plunged nearly 10% to an all-time low. The stock slightly recovered, but it is still hovering near historic lows, closing Thursday at $7.70 a share.

Spokespeople for WBD and the NBA declined to comment on Thursday.

But WBD executives have tried over the last several weeks to quell investor concerns. Zaslav said on a company earnings call that he remained “hopeful we will be able to reach an agreement that makes sense for both sides.” While NBCU’s bid far surpasses the current price WBD pays to air the games, WBD executives have repeatedly underscored that the company retains the right to match other offers, perhaps Amazon’s. It’s possible that Zaslav will be able to find another way to walk away from the intense negotiations with a deal for some games. But as the games slip out of WBD’s hands, morale has taken an ugly hit at TNT, as evidenced by Barkley’s candid comments.

While WBD maintains the rights to the NCAA March Madness tournament, along with the MLB, NHL and NASCAR — and most recently acquired College Football Playoff games from ESPN — the NBA remains crucial to the media conglomerate. It is, unquestionably, the crown jewel of WBD’s sports portfolio. And TNT has built a programming slate around the NBA games, most notably the highly rated “Inside the NBA” show. In fact, Barkley just signed a new, 10-year contract in 2023.

Moreover, WBD struck a landmark deal with Disney and Fox Corp. earlier this year to launch Venu, a forthcoming joint sports streamer. Losing the rights to NBA games could throw aspects of that business partnership into question. That’s not to mention that WBD’s flagship streaming service, Max, has been advertising live sports to consumers as a key differentiator from other platforms. Losing the NBA would be a big blow to that pitch.

Gunnar Wiedenfels, WBD’s chief financial officer, acknowledged this week at the J.P. Morgan’s Technology, Media & Communications conference that “sports are a very important category” for the company and it remains “fully committed to a sports strategy.” But Wiedenfels stressed the importance of financial restraint when inking such deals.

“What I also will say is we’re always going to be disciplined,” Wiedenfels said. “It’s very easy with sports rights to burn a lot of money. And there’s also an opportunity to to get your hands on some of the most emotional, most coveted products from an audience perspective. So, you’ve got to be disciplined and think through all the scenarios.”

In other words, WBD is facing a major dilemma: Fork over much more to the NBA to try to match a deal on the table, or end the company’s nearly-four decade relationship with the league.

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