The NBA held its annual draft this past week and it (almost) broke the Internet. As with the NFL, the NBA draft has become a major extension of the traditional sports season. I heard more than one commentator suggest that this year’s draft was more entertaining than this year’s playoffs, which were thoroughly dominated by the Golden State Warriors.
How did we get here, and what does it mean for the future of TV? Two thoughts….
Broadcast Rights Are Overrated
The NBA licensed the broadcast rights to the NBA draft to ESPN as part of its overall NBA package. ESPN, in turn, produces a live draft show that is broadcast on its legacy linear station, as well as via its WatchESPN authenticated TV Everywhere app.
This means, of course, that neither the NBA nor ESPN provide a live stream of the draft on their main public sites (i.e., NBA.com or ESPN.com). These sites do offer text-based coverage of the event (i.e., an updated list of the players that have been chosen), but for most NBA fans (including me) this is entirely unsatisfying. So what’s a cord-cutting (or at least ESPN-cutting) sports fan to do? The answer is simple.
Online-only live draft shows appear to have filled the gap. This past week two such shows dominated the online coverage: (1) a CBS Sports offering featuring former NBA players Raja Bell and Richard (Rip) Hamilton; and (2) a Yahoo sports offering featuring Twitter-famous NBA journalist Adrian (Woj) Wojnarowski and other NBA journalists. The format of these shows is both simple and effective. The assembled commentators report on results and then talk about each pick in real time. (The feel is actually quite a bit like the various broadcast networks on election night).
One might think this would mean that the online shows would be delayed (and thus at a disadvantage) relative to the official broadcast, but that is emphatically not the case. Woj has sources at (seemingly) every team in the league. (And you think the White House has leaks!) More importantly, as an independent journalist, Woj is under no constraint to wait until each player goes up on stage and is officially announced. As a result, his show was consistently ahead of the official ESPN broadcast itself. The CBS show, in turn, has just started to announce Woj’s results (predictions?) rather than waiting for the official results, and is thus also ahead of ESPN, even though it has no special insight whatsoever.
The whole thing is pretty funny – imagine if some random third-party show knew (and live-tweeted) the winners for the Grammys or the Academy Awards. That’s exactly the situation the NBA is in with Woj.
The problem, of course, is that Woj neither has, nor requires, any permission from either the ESPN or the NBA to do this. The NBA draft is a public event and draft picks are public events. In addition, as a journalist, if Woj can get people at teams to leak their picks in advance he is fully within his rights to report that information.
As a result, Woj and his counterparts at CBS are not just free riding alongside the official broadcast — they are increasingly upstaging it and becoming the story themselves. Of course, this also means they are diverting more and more fans (and ad dollars) into their own pockets. ESPN’s official broadcast still did okay in the ratings (coming in at 2.7), but was nonetheless down from both 2015 and 2016 editions.
The truth of this came out in a ‘trade rumor’ worthy of Woj himself. ESPN is reportedly in talks to hire Woj as an NBA reporter, which (it hopes) might restore some order to the situation. We’ll see.
Sports Is No Longer Only About Athletic Competitions: It’s A Content Genre
The interesting thing about all of this, from my perspective, is that nowhere on any of the live draft shows (official or not) did any of the players dribble a ball or shoot a single shot. The NBA Draft is not sports, it’s meta-sports: that is, it talks about sports (here basketball players and teams) rather than actually playing sports. As such, modern sports (including TV coverage) is less and less about watching games, and more and more about following a cultural scene. Today’s sports coverage (especially on ESPN) is part news, part celebrity gossip, and part reality TV show.
This cultural shift in how we engage sports content presents both opportunities and challenges to TV brands. ESPN has paid billions for NBA broadcast rights, but younger fans seem less interested in watching games. Instead, they follow their fantasy picks, trade rumors, Instagram photos of player girlfriends (forgive me for not providing links), and interviews with Lavar Ball (the ultimate helicopter parent). None of this is (or can be) protected by a contract between the NBA and ESPN, regardless of how many zeros follow the dollar sign. Sooner or later, this is going to be a problem.
The NBA Draft used to be a minor story in the newspaper. Now it’s a full-on three-ring media circus. The shift from sports to meta-sports is real. Is your brand ready to deal with it?
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel Espelien is Senior Advisor for TDG and VP of Client Services for the Corum Group doing sell-side technology acquisitions. He lives near Seattle, WA.