NBA: Two months into season, league without broadcast partner in India for first time in decade

When the star-studded Team LeBron face the equally star-studded Team Durant in the 2021 NBA All-Star showdown, the game will not be broadcast live on Indian television.

When the star-studded team of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic face the equally star-studded side of Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum in the 2021 NBA All-Star game early on Monday morning, the action will not be broadcast live on Indian television.

That’s because, in a setback to its ambitions for the country of 1.3 billion, the NBA finds itself without a broadcast partner to show live games for the first time in a decade.

The impasse comes after NBA and Sony Pictures Networks (SPN), who were the league’s broadcast partners from 2010 until the previous season, could not reach an agreement. Fans in India wanting to watch games live can still buy a subscription to NBA’s League Pass streaming service.

While NBA Asia Managing Director Scott Levy refused to disclose private conversations with any partner, he did admit that they “hadn’t been able to reach an agreement that satisfies both parties”.

“India continues to be a priority market for the NBA, and we are committed to making live NBA games and programming available to fans in India. Every NBA game is available in India live and on-demand on NBA League Pass, and we hope to announce additional distribution plans soon,” Levy told Firstpost.

“As far as live game distribution, we are having productive conversations with a number of potential partners and hope to announce additional distribution plans soon.”

SPN refused to comment on why they were unable to reach an agreement with NBA. SPN, previously called Multi Screen Media (MSM), initially signed on as NBA’s Indian broadcast partners in 2010 for two years. They renewed their contract for three more years in 2012, and then again for five years. In previous seasons, SPN’s Sony Six were beaming as many as 350 regular-season NBA games — including 80 in Hindi — in India.

They also broadcast the first NBA India Games in 2019, which were a culmination of a decade-long strategic effort by NBA to make steady inroads into the Indian market. The league set up an office in Mumbai in 2011, launched the ambitious Junior NBA Program in 2013, and inaugurated the NBA Academy India at Delhi NCR in May 2017.

“We’re seeing real progress (with NBA in India). Bringing two NBA teams here to play live was an important next step,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had told Network18 in an interview a day before the Sacramento Kings took on the Indiana Pacers in Mumbai in the NBA India Games.

Earlier this year, the NBA inked a deal with Prasar Bharati, India’s public service broadcaster, to air classic NBA content such as Hardwood Classics, Marquee Matchups, NBA championship videos besides documentaries, and game highlights. However, the inability to get a broadcast partner on board is a definite setback for the North American league.

Livestreaming an option?

In the past, the NBA has experimented with live streaming games in India via social media platforms like Facebook. The ‘Bollywood Night’ game between Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors in 2017 was streamed in India via Facebook live. Games of the 2019 NBA Finals were broadcast for free on NBA’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube handles with English commentary.

The league has also adopted a strategy of streaming games on Facebook Watch and Twitter in the Philippines two years ago.

It must be noted that in recent years, SPN has also let go of broadcast rights of LaLiga, the Spanish football league. The media rights for the Spanish league were then picked up by Facebook for three years starting from the 2018/19 season. SPN later inked a deal with Facebook in 2020 to broadcast 100 select games on their sports entertainment channels.

Asked if the NBA could consider a radical approach of pursuing streaming deals with OTT platforms like Amazon Prime Video and social media giants like Facebook, Levy said, “Our goal is to reach NBA fans around the world on the devices and platforms they use most. We work closely with Facebook and have live streamed select games on Facebook in India in the past. As the media landscape continues to evolve, we look forward to introducing more ways to bring the excitement of the NBA to fans in India.”

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