Earlier this month AT&T announced it was ending its involvement in the media business after only three years from the closure of its merger with Time Warner. The assets now known as WarnerMedia would be merged with Discovery to form a new entity with no AT&T ownership and with Discovery head David Zaslav in charge of the merged company, which might sound an awful lot like Discovery buying WarnerMedia (and AT&T would get plenty of compensation in the form of cash and absorption of debt obligations, albeit amounting to pennies on the dollar from the original Time Warner acquisition), except AT&T shareholders would own nearly three-quarters of the new company. WarnerMedia’s diverse portfolio of adult and children’s entertainment networks, plus news networks and sports content, premium cable, and the HBO Max service launched under AT&T, would now be joining forces with Discovery’s documentary, reality, and other nonfiction programming.
A number of analysts in the aftermath suggested this would be a “game changer” for sports with “one more bidder entering the market” for sports rights, with one analyst claiming it would have “profound implications” as the new company could create a “must-have sports streaming service”, but considering that WarnerMedia already had high-profile sports rights and Discovery didn’t have any US sports rights whatsoever, nor does either company have a broadcast network presence, it’s hard to see how the new company is any more of a factor in sports rights negotiations than WarnerMedia already was. To be sure, before this year it had been a long time since Turner had been much of a factor in trying to acquire rights they didn’t already own and that were in any way competitive, the main exception being a run with the UEFA Champions League that only ended up lasting a year and a half and didn’t particularly impress soccer fans.
Then sports media watchers were blindsided when Turner came seemingly out of nowhere to take the half of the NHL package Disney hadn’t locked up, effectively saving the league from having to take significantly less money than they were hoping for after NBC was lukewarm at best to continuing their involvement, Fox set a ceiling on how much they would pay, and CBS wasn’t interested at all. The rights could be said to have fallen into Turner’s lap, but it’s still impressive that Turner was able to pay pretty close to what the NHL was looking for and beat out all other comers (including the possibility that Disney might have simply taken the whole package), and as incredible as it was that ESPN, the outfit more responsible than any other for keeping two Stanley Cup Final games on cable over the past two decades, would be the outfit to finally put every Final game on broadcast, it was even more incredible to find out that the other three Finals over the course of the deal would air entirely on cable, after the great care NBC took in the latter portion of their relationship to ensure NBCSN wouldn’t air a Game 4 where the Cup could be awarded. Zaslav’s comments that he’d been working on the merger for months before word got out (and had been badgering AT&T about a deal pretty much from the instant the Time Warner merger was completed) could serve as fuel for speculation that he was the driving force behind the NHL deal all along, and suggests that if the only impact a WarnerMedia-Discovery merger has on the former company’s sports operation is an infusion of resources (even though the merged company is probably smaller than AT&T as a whole during the WarnerMedia era), that’s still going to be enough to shake up the sports landscape.
But there aren’t a whole lot of high-value rights left. MLS rights, currently shared by ESPN and Fox, expire in 2022, but the value of those rights are a shadow of even the NHL. The NBA is the only one of the traditional four major sports that hasn’t locked up new rights deals in the past few months and Turner will be playing defense there when those rights come up by 2025. The NFL hasn’t settled the future of NFL Sunday Ticket, and SportsBusiness Daily’s John Ourand thinks DiscoverWarnerMedia might become a player there, but it feels like an odd fit without holding any exclusive or linear rights.
With ESPN picking up CBS’ SEC contract, there aren’t any major college conference rights up for renewal before 2024, when the Big Ten and Pac-12’s deals expire, with the Big 12 and Big East following suit the following year; the NCAA’s deal with ESPN for less-prominent sports expires then as well, and those deals could be an opportunity for DiscoverWarnerMedia to deepen their relationship with college sports and the NCAA (whose web site they already run) and avoid simply parachuting in for March Madness. But both ESPN and especially Fox are likely to spend profusely to defend their Big Ten rights, and the Pac-12 right now is in a place where they’re in danger of becoming the clear fifth conference of the Power 5, while the Big 12 has the least valuable demographics of the Power 5 and the Big East has no football and hasn’t moved the needle for FS1 as much as they thought it would. The College Football Playoff, whose current deals run through the 2025 season, is likely to come up at this point as well, but I doubt they have much interest in continuing to be a cable-only enterprise given their popularity and the direction media is headed, and they certainly won’t go with an outfit without any other college football rights (covers ears and sings loudly to drown out people bringing up the BCS on Fox). That’s not even getting into the notion of a large-scale shakeup of college football that might come mid-decade (one that, depending on the players involved, could yet see DiscoverWarnerMedia benefit).
NASCAR comes up for renewal in 2024 as well, but Turner seemed like an odd relic last time they had those rights with a handful of early-summer races, both they and ESPN pretty much didn’t want anything to do with the sport anymore by the time that deal ended, and NASCAR ratings didn’t finish crashing through the floor until a few years into the Fox/NBC era. On the other hand, the shutdown of NBCSN means NBC could be vulnerable to a concerted effort from a determined rival, which, given their portion of the schedule coincides with football season, would mean either Turner or ESPN. Everything else that could move the needle, including the World Cup, SEC, and ACC, are all locked up for the rest of the decade, and anything else that is coming up in that time isn’t likely to move the needle very much.
What Discovery does bring to the table that might make an impact on WarnerMedia’s sports operations is their Eurosport network, and a lot of the excitement surrounding the merger concerns the possibility of blending the Turner networks’ sports rights with Eurosport’s to form an unbeatable sports streaming service. But Eurosport’s slate of rights is singularly unimpressive, at least from an American standpoint, which might be surprising given its prominence; in fact Turner’s rights slate might benefit Eurosport more than the other way around. (Also, the opportunities for synergy are limited given Eurosport broadcasts in each of Europe’s many languages.) What rights Eurosport does have that would be relevant to Americans – the Olympics and PGA Tour – are among the rights already locked up stateside into the next decade (and Turner’s efforts to pick up PGA Tour rights were simply embarrassing, talking about converting one of their networks into a duplicate of what NBC already had), and everything else is a hodgepodge of rights.
It has plenty of soccer, but not much of it applies throughout its territory (in fact very little applies outside Scandinavia and Romania) and what does apply tends to be decidedly lower-tier; they technically have domestic rights to the German Bundesliga (extending to much of Central and Eastern Europe) but resold those rights (as well as those in Austria and Switzerland) to DAZN (which led to DAZN launching German linear channels only reluctantly and while griping about how they shouldn’t be necessary, once again overlooking the true value of linear television). Both outlets would likely be interested in acquiring Premier League rights for as many territories as possible, but that seems to be NBC’s top priority now that Sky Sports, the outlet arguably responsible for the Premier League’s very existence, is a corporate sibling. Eurosport also has rights to the three Grand Tours of bicycle racing, and the Tour de France might be up for the taking with NBCSN shutting down, but it’s not like being on TNT or TBS is actually any different than being on USA.
What stands out to me, looking at Eurosport’s slate of rights from the perspective of the Turner networks, is tennis. Eurosport has pan-European rights to the French and US Opens (excluding rights to the US Open in the UK and Ireland, where Amazon holds rights), to the Australian Open in the vast majority if not all of Europe, and Wimbledon in a majority of countries they serve. They also hold rights to the ATP Tour in France, Russia, Scandinavia, Romania, and Hungary, and the WTA Tour in Denmark and Russia. In the United States, rights to most events outside the Grand Slams are held exclusively by Tennis Channel, which just locked up a deal to become the exclusive home of ATP Tour events, including the most prominent events in North America, for an indeterminate amount of time, though the similar deal with the WTA expires after 2023. Tennis Channel is also the main rightsholder at the French Open, with ESPN holding rights to the other three Grand Slams, though I haven’t seen anything indicating that they’ve reached an agreement with the Australian Open extending past 2021. Their deal with Wimbledon runs through 2023, while the US Open deal runs through 2025; Tennis Channel’s deal with the French Open runs through 2023, with NBC’s deal ending the following year. DiscoverWarnerMedia could be a surprisingly motivated bidder for rights to each of the four Grand Slams, at minimum, over the next four years. Anything else would likely require a relationship with Tennis Channel, and Sinclair Broadcast Group likely doesn’t see a reason to part with it (and certainly not to have the whole company being acquired if it means they don’t get to spread conservative propaganda on their broadcast stations anymore, and DiscoverWarnerMedia likely doesn’t have much stomach for running broadcast stations anyway). Still, this might be the biggest immediate impact of the merger.
There’s one more wrinkle to consider here, albeit one that’s only incidentally related to the merger itself. Though AT&T’s regional sports networks were acquired through the purchase of DirecTV, after the Time Warner merger they were placed in the same part of WarnerMedia as Turner Sports in the News and Sports division under Jeff Zucker, actually separate from the rest of the TBS and TNT networks in the Studios and Networks division. I haven’t seen any mention of the RSNs in any discussions of the deal, and there were rumors for a while that not all of the WB Games division would make the transition to the new company so it’s not a sure thing the RSNs will, but I would normally assume the RSNs will in fact make the transition. Certainly the RSNs were long subject to rumors that AT&T was hoping to unload them in some way, arguably predating the AT&T-DirecTV merger but shifting into overdrive as the RSN market seemingly collapsed, with the prospect of a reunion with their former Fox Sports Net bretheren at Sinclair being particularly floated. With the NHL deal, though, WarnerMedia now has national rights to each of the three sports that make up the backbone of most RSNs, and while ideally you’d want a larger group than just four RSNs (not counting the separate feeds for Utah and Nevada) for this, there’s an opportunity to create some form of synergy between the RSNs and the national outlets, if Zaslav wants it. At the very least, if the RSNs aren’t part of AT&T anymore they’ll probably need a change of name.
In short, there are a lot of obstacles to a combined Discovery-WarnerMedia being a bigger player in sports rights than either company alone, not the least of them being that there isn’t a single package of rights held by both Turner and Eurosport as it stands, other than Russia-specific rights to the NHL, which means there’s not a lot it can do at the moment to create a streaming service that would be fundamentally the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The ability to offer international rights in Europe would certainly help in WarnerMedia’s negotiations with sports leagues, but the entities that would be most interested in that are either locked up for the next decade, already with Turner, or have limited appeal, and Eurosport has shown little interest in the European leagues and competitions that would be interested in a stateside presence, so it seems doubtful the American sports consumer would notice much of a difference. Tennis is probably the only sport where joining forces with Eurosport would pay dividends for the Turner networks in the short term, but even there the impact is likely to be limited. So while this merger is likely to have a significant impact on rights to American sports leagues in Europe, could impact stateside rights to tennis and cycling, and gives both entities an infusion of cash and the ability to bid for trans-Atlantic rights to fuel the pursuit of more sports rights, hyperbolic claims about its impact on the sports landscape are probably unwarranted in the short term; if anything, a good chunk of the impact may have already happened. Still, it’ll be worth keeping a close eye on NBA rights negotiations in the next few years if the deal gets approved; to the extent DiscoverWarnerMedia can launch a trans-Atlantic streaming service, NBA rights will probably have to be the linchpin for it.