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Who needs LeBron? Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, playoff ratings put NBA in a strong position for next media rights cycle

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Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket to shoot against the Golden State Warriors in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on May 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Thearon W. Henderson | Getty Images

The NBA is in a strong position as it bounces back from the pandemic and gears up for its next media rights cycle in the next few years. Playoff viewership increased without much participation from teams in the huge New York and Los Angeles markets. The league’s biggest star, LeBron James, isn’t in the playoffs, either.

Audiences are tuning in to watch the Golden State Warriors, who have returned to title contention after missing the playoffs last year. The Boston Celtics are drawing big numbers, too, as the storied franchise looks to add an 18th title banner to its arena rafters. Electric young stars Ja Morant and Luka Doncic have also helped the NBA’s playoff ratings recovery after two down years caused by the pandemic.  

“The NBA is no longer dependent on one or two teams,” said longtime sports media executive Neal Pilson. “They’re no longer dependent on major market teams. That’s evidence of strength.”

The NBA’s conference finals started earlier this week on Warner Bros. Discovery property Turner Sports and Disney-owned ABC and ESPN networks. Through the early conference finals matchups, postseason games are averaging 3.7 million viewers on the networks, up 14% when compared to 2021.

More than 6 million watched game one of the 2022 Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and Dallas Mavericks. And ESPN also reported roughly 6 million viewers watched game one and two of the Celtics-Miami Heat series. The NBA uses metrics from measurement company Nielsen for its viewership stats.

The NBA’s $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner ends after the 2024-25 campaign. Speculation about whether the NBA will embrace streaming services in the next round of deals.

The league will have a strong hand to play in large part because of its young stars.

Pilson, a former president at CBS Sports, pointed to the NBA’s team balance and the promotion of young stars as a reason fans are showing interest. The Memphis Grizzlies’ Morant and Dallas’ Doncic put the NBA in a “healthy situation” for a lucrative rights deal, he said. 

The popularity of the 22-year-old Morant helped lead the Memphis Grizzlies to its most-watched playoff series ever. The Grizzlies series against the Warriors averaged 5.9 million viewers over six games. That included 7.7 million viewers who watched game one – the highest-rated game in the playoffs so far. 

Morant missed the final three games of the series due to injury. But he’s expected to return next season, so expect national networks to feature more Grizzlies games. 

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball during Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals on May 18, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Noah Graham | NBA | Getty Images

Doncic, 23, led the Mavericks to a game seven win over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns on Sunday. That game averaged 6.3 million viewers and was the fifth-most watched game in the playoffs this year.

“You can put Memphis and Dallas on and get an audience,” said Pilson, adding that the NBA is “not dependent on the Lakers and certainly not dependent on the Knicks.”

The league will be tested during the NBA Finals in June, though.

The NBA Finals averaged 9.9 million viewers in 2021, when the Milwaukee Bucks and their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, defeated the Suns. That’s up from an average of 7.5 million viewers for the 2020 NBA Finals, which featured James, now 37, and the Lakers playing in front of an empty arena in the Orlando Covid bubble. But it’s also way down compared to the 15.1 million viewers who watched the 2019 NBA Finals featuring the Warriors and the Toronto Raptors. 

Of the remaining teams, a Heat-Mavs final might not draw top viewership like a Celtics-Warriors, or Celtics-Mavs series. But Pilson said the remaining star players, including Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, would still be enough to draw a substantial audience. The profile of Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ 24-year-old top star, has also grown this postseason.

“There are more NBA teams now that can support the Finals in terms of athletes and ratings than there were 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s beachfront property – sports is driving the television economy. It’s why rights fees are expensive, and sponsors have to pay top dollar.”

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) is fouled by Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the first quarter. The Miami Heat host the Boston Celtics during game 2 in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena in Miami, FL on May 19, 2022.

Matthew J. Lee | Boston Globe | Getty Images

At the NBA’s board of governors meeting April in New York, league commissioner Adam Silver said it’s “premature” to contemplate adding new partners in the next rights deal, he did say the NBA was closely monitoring the rights marketplace – particularly as tech behemoth Apple is now spending to show sports on its Apple TV+ service. 

“The discussions we’re having now have more to do with predictions and where the media market is going,” said Silver. “I think we’re going to continue to see a morphing of a lot of these rights that have historically been on traditional services to streaming services. And frankly, that’s where the consumers are going, too.”

But how the NBA packages those rights is up in the air. Apple showed its interest in getting in the sports media business when it struck a deal this spring to land MLB rights. Amazon is already in business with the NBA, as it streams WNBA games.

“I think that’s the direction media is going in this country,” said Silver. “People want personalization. They want customization.” 

Streaming platforms, he added, offer sports fans “flexibility and attributes that maybe you don’t find through conventional, satellite and cable delivery.”

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‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ tops $108 million as parents flock back to cinemas, kids in tow

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“Minions: The Rise of Gru” is the sequel to the 2015 film, “Minions,” and spin-off/prequel to the main “Despicable Me” film series.

Universal

Families have gone bananas for “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Over the weekend, the Universal and Illumination animated feature tallied more than $108 million in ticket sales.

The fifth film in the Despicable Me franchise generated an additional $93.7 million from international markets, bringing its estimated opening weekend haul to $202 million globally.

“With the incredible success of ‘Minions,’ the notion that family audiences were avoiding movie theaters due to Covid concerns can be shelved,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Box office analysts had wondered if this segment of moviegoers was still avoiding cinemas after Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” took in just $51 million during its domestic debut last month, below expectations of $70 million and $85 million.

It was unclear if tough box office competition led to “Lightyear’s” less than stellar debut or if consumers were confused about the film’s release. After all, there has not been a theatrical release of a Pixar film since 2020′s “Onward.” The last three from the animation studio, “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red,” were all released on streaming service Disney+.

“Minions: The Rise of Gru” represented 54% of all domestic moviegoers over the weekend, with 68% of ticket holders being part of family groups, according to data from EntTelligence.

“What this weekend has showcased is a triumphant return to cinemas by families, laying to rest any lingering and outdated pandemic narrative that parents and kids only want to watch movies at home,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “When the right content is out there, people will show up.”

The film is expected to add another $20 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada on Monday, bringing its holiday weekend total to $128 million.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

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American Airlines scheduling glitch allows pilots to drop thousands of July flights

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An American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner approaches for a landing at the Miami International Airport on December 10, 2021 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

A glitch in a scheduling platform allowed American Airlines pilots to drop thousands of July assignments overnight Saturday, their union said, a headache for the airline as it tries to minimize flight disruptions during a booming travel season.

American said it didn’t expect the problem to affect its operation, including during the busy July Fourth holiday weekend. The union and airline are now discussing additional pay for pilots whose dropped trips the airline reinstated, the Allied Pilots Association said.

“As a result of this technical glitch, certain trip trading transactions were able to be processed when it shouldn’t have been permitted,” the airline said in a statement. “We already have restored the vast majority of the affected trips and do not anticipate any operational impact because of this issue.”

More than 12,000 July flights lacked either a captain, first officer, or both, after pilots dropped assignments, the Allied Pilots Association said Saturday. APA said the airline reinstated about 80% of the trips.

Pilots can routinely drop or pick up trips, but time off in the summer or holidays is hard to come by for airline employees as schedules peak to cater to strong demand.

On Saturday alone, American had more than 3,000 mainline flights scheduled and they were 93% full, according to an internal tally. Flights left unstaffed, however, are an additional strain on any airline.

The glitch occurred during a rocky start to the Fourth of July weekend when thunderstorms and staffing issues caused thousands of U.S. flight delays and hundreds of cancellations.

A similar issue occurred in 2017, when a technology problem let American’s pilots take vacation during the busy December holiday period. The carrier offered pilots 150% pay for pilots that picked up assignments.

American and its pilots’ union, whose relationship has been fraught, are in the middle of contract negotiations and the airline most recently offered nearly 17% raises through 2024.

Union president Capt. Ed Sicher, who started his term Friday, told American’s roughly 15,000 pilots Saturday night that American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said he is committed to paying an “inconvenience premium” to aviators whose trips American put back on their schedules after the glitch.

“To Mr. Isom’s credit, he called me four times today to commit to mitigating the damage from this debacle,” Sicher wrote late Saturday. “We started at a 200% override, although the details of this pay are still the subject of negotiations and there is no guarantee of the details or the amounts.”

American Airlines declined to comment on Sicher’s message to pilots.

American’s pilots have picketed recently against grueling schedules, something they want to be addressed in a new contract. Pilots at Delta and Southwest have picketed in recent weeks for similar reasons.

Sicher also struck an upbeat tone about contract talks with American, particularly about quality-of-life issues.

“Please understand that no firm commitments have yet been made, but I feel that we have, at least for the first time since negotiations began, received positive indications that management is motivated to achieve collaborative solutions to longstanding problems with our current contract that will greatly enhance our ability to trade our trips and consequently enhance our quality of life,” he wrote.

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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