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The AT&T-Time Warner deal has massive sports media implications

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

As AT&T looks to buy Time Warner for $85.4 billion, much of the media focus has been on HBO and CNN, two of the gems in Time Warner’s massive content portfolio. Indeed, AT&T (T) would obtain one of the leading cable news networks and what is arguably the leader in premium original television.

But the big tie-up would also have a major impact on sports television.

Time Warner (TWX) owns Turner Sports, which owns TBS, TNT, TruTV, and a swath of sports TV and digital rights along with them. Viewers of these channels won’t see any immediate change, but AT&T will enjoy ownership of the remainder of these contracts, and when they expire, will likely get aggressive in renewing them as well as inking entirely new deals.

TBS has baseball rights through 2021, after it renewed its deal with MLB (as did Fox) in 2012. Each year, TBS gets to show 13 Sunday games and either the NLCS or ALCS (it alternates).

TNT has basketball rights through 2025, after it renewed its deal with the NBA (as did ABC and ESPN) in 2014. From the coming NBA season on, TNT shows 64 regular season games (including opening night and Thursday doubleheaders) and the All-Star Game.

TBS, TNT, and TruTV have NCAA basketball rights through 2032, after Turner tacked another eight years onto its deal this year. Turner gets to show early-round tournament games on those three channels, and the Final Four alternates with CBS.

And that’s all just television. Turner has expansive sports digital rights, including ownership and management of: NBA.com; NBA TV; NCAA.com; and March Madness Live.

Turner isn’t Time Warner’s only sports asset. HBO brings to the table an extensive annual boxing lineup, plus programs of varying value like “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” (which carries investigative cachet) and “Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons” (which is “tanking,” according to an August report). Warner Bros., also part of Time Warner, last year struck an extensive content-creation deal with LeBron James’s production company SpringHill Entertainment, which created the STARZ show “Survivor’s Remorse.”

AT&T, thanks to its acquisition of DirecTV two years ago, already owns NFL Sunday Ticket, which gives football fans a digital subscription to out-of-market Sunday games.

So, what does all this mean? Obviously AT&T’s sports media footprint gets a whole lot bigger, all at once. But the impact on sports viewers may be slower to appear. For one thing, AT&T becomes a likely bidder for future rights deals when they become available, such as the coveted Monday Night Football package ESPN renewed with the NFL in 2011, which expires in 2021. As the sports television blog Awful Announcing pointed out, Turner “would love to get back into the professional football business.”

While many analysts have argued that no one can expect any price decreases from the tie-up, and that the vertical integration is a negative for consumers, there’s one potential big positive: AT&T owning Turner could lead to more (and better) sports streaming options.

HBO has received high praise for its over-the-top streaming subscription product HBO Now, which is run on the back end by BAM Tech, the recently spun-off video arm of MLB Advanced Media. With HBO in its stable, AT&T would be wise to apply some of that streaming prowess, and lessons learned, to the Turner properties. (Speaking of BAM Tech, Disney has invested $1 billion for a 33% stake in the business, and in four years gets the chance to buy another third if it wants to; AT&T’s swallowing of Time Warner makes it even more likely that Disney will want to.)

Live sports (and to a lesser extent, awards events) are often cited as the one reason left to pay for cable these days, since the options to stream NFL, MLB, and NBA games are still limited and expensive. The transformation of AT&T into a content creator as well as distributor could change that—if AT&T can find a way to offer more sports streaming options and make money doing it.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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