The NBA's coming flex problem

( Chuck and Shaq would love TNT to get flex scheduling. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
( Chuck and Shaq would love TNT to get flex scheduling. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

Before the 2013-2014 NBA season started, a potential Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers matchup had networks and fans salivating. Who wouldn’t want to see Derrick Rose’s comeback tour hit Staples?

After major knee injuries to Rose and Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant, just about everyone was a lot less excited about the matchup. The NBA’s network partners, ESPN and TNT were among those least pleased.

ESPN and TNT were locked into featuring such marquee games that lost their luster due to injuries to major stars or poor team performances, as was the case with the New York Knicks. When such games took place the networks were stuck with the inability to change featured games to more exciting matchups.

As a result, ESPN and TNT have are pushing for “flex scheduling” in a new television rights deal, after the current agreement expires post the 2015-2016 season. Flex scheduling would allow the networks to schedule programming based upon in season performance. Theoretically, fans could avoid dud games in favor of matchups featuring unexpected upstarts like the Phoenix Suns.

The NBA currently does not allow for flex scheduling the way the NFL does. The NBA’s revenue streams are built in such a manner that complicate the ability for national networks to switch scheduled televised games in favor of games with more ratings fodder.

Team revenue streams are highly dependent on local television broadcasts and regional sports networks (RSNs). RSNs drive a huge sum of money for individual teams as well as the league. The Lakers have a $3.6 billion, 25-year deal with Time Warner Cable for sole rights to all non-nationally televised Lakers’ games. ESPN and TNT are currently allowed only 12 exclusive games per team with RSNs taking the balance for exclusive broadcasting.

As teams look for more revenue streams, RSN deals like the Lakers current one will become more in vogue. The L.A. Clippers have a local broadcast deal with Fox Sports West set to expire after the 2015-2016 season. They too are expected to fetch a huge sum for their next RSN deal that will most likely rival the sum the Lakers attracted.

A team may not want to cut itself off from these swelling local rights deals in exchange to give national networks complete flexibility over scheduling. While there will be some movement toward greater flex scheduling, ESPN and TNT will likely endure similar arrangements in order to ensure they are awarded NBA inventory for years to come.

What is clear to the NBA, ESPN, and TNT is that Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports and a bevy of other new sports-dedicated channels would be happy to gain the NBA rights under any “flex scheduling” arrangement the league sees fit.

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