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Warner Bros. Discovery Licenses College Football Playoff Games From ESPN as NBA Talks Continue

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Even as it faces a full-court press from investors curious to know if it will retain rights to show games from the NBA, Warner Bros. Discovery has been courting sports from a different field.

Warner Bros. Discovery has struck a deal with rival ESPN, according to two people familiar with the matter, that will have the former sub-licensing a small number of games over a five-year period starting later this year. TNT will be the lead media network for broadcast of two first-round games this year and next, and then will add two quarterfinals starting in 2026.

The deal surfaces as Warner Bros. Discovery remains enmeshed in critical discussions with the NBA about renewing long-standing media rights. Warner and the NBA have been allied since 1989, with the relationship growing so strong that Warner has helped operate the NBA’s cable network and manage some of its digital properties.

And yet, the NBA’s media contracts with both ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery expire after next season, and the league has already worked out deal frameworks with the Disney-backed outlet as well as Amazon Prime Video and NBCUniversal, according to people familiar with the situation. Warner Bros. Discovery believes it has a right to try to match a deal offered by any rival.

Warner and the basketball league remain in talks about maintaining their current ties. “This is still very much an ongoing negotiation. We’ve had a great partnership with the NBA,” said Gunnar Wiedenfels, Warner’s chief financial officer, in remarks delivered to investors Wednesday. “We value the product, and we are very hopeful that we are going to be able to find a solution here that’s mutually beneficial to both sides.”

Warner’s efforts to secure the college-football games were “independent and parallel” to its NBA conversations, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company, like many of its media contemporaries, has been eager to build up its sports portfolio, as live events remain one of few formats that continue to draw the big, simultaneous audiences that advertisers and distributors crave. Many of these viewers stream scripted comedies, dramas and movies at times of their own choosing. Warner has long offered games from the NBA and MLB and shares the rights to broadcast the NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament with CBS. It has recently struck new deals with the NHL and NASCAR.

Losing NBA games would be seen as a significant obstacle to Warner Bros. Discovery’s business. The schedule of the company’s TNT cable network is filled with NBA broadcasts, and its “Inside the NBA” studio program, which features Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson, among others, is viewed as one of the top shows in all of U.S. sports.

“We’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this negotiation, and we have strategies in place for the various potential outcomes,’ Warner CEO David Zaslav said during the company’s most recent earnings call with investors.

Talks with ESPN commenced about two or three months ago, this person said.

The pact will put college football on one of Warner’s cable networks for the first time since a four-year stint that ended in 2006. During that time, Warner’s TBS aired Big 12 and Pac-10 games that were sub-licensed from Fox. Previously, Warner made TBS the first cable network to broadcast live college football when it started running games in 1982. TBS would drop the games a decade later.

The new deal could boost the business of both Warner and Disney. ESPN gets to offset some of the money it has to spend as part of a six-year pact it has to broadcast the CFP that is valued at $7.8 billion and extends through the 2031-2032 season. Bringing Warner’s TNT Sports into the mix would add to the promotion around CFP, and potentially draw broader crowds to the event. ESPN will produce all the games, according to the person familiar with the matter, but TNT Sports will be able to create programming around the CFP games and make its own decisions about talent and some aspects of presentation. But ESPN broadcasters will guide viewers through the games themselves, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The two companies are also partners in the soon-to-launch streaming joint-venture Venu, and the deal will keep the CFP games available for that outlet. Warner and Disney are co-owners of Venu along with Fox Corp. Warner Bros. Discovery would likely also stream the new playoff games on its Max service.

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