Clipping The Opposition?

My LinkedIn was abuzz with giddy, upbeat articles trumpeting the Los Angeles Clippers’ announcement that it will be reversing a trend of major sports teams bypassing local broadcast TV, as it will return games to KTLA-TV Channel 5 for the first time in sixteen years this fall.   Indeed, they will become only the second such pro team to have such a deal, joining their sister Nexstar station, WPIX-TV in New York, which carries a slate of Mets baseball games.  Only a handful of MLS teams are the remaining contributors to what was once a staple of local television, and those rights are heading exclusively for Apple TV+ next season.

But a closer look at the details of the announcement, as well as a bit of perspective of what the respective end games might be for both the team and the station, may mute some of the celebration just a notch.

The new KTLA-Clippers deal is for just 15 games, four of which are pre-season games that begin at the end of the month with the much anticipated visit of Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Crypto.Com Arena (nee Staples Center).  At least the game is happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Of the 11 regular season games, only five will air in prime time, and only three will be against teams that made the playoffs in 2021-22, a destination the injury-riddled Clippers failed to reach,

And while this news comes on the heels of their star Kawhi Leonard being cleared to play for the first time since before the 2020-21 playoffs, with his recent track record, not to mention his track record of missing a good number of regular season games when healthy, there’s a strong likelihood the face of the franchise may not see a lot of air time in these games, particularly those later in the season against what are expected to be weaker opponents.

32 of the Clippers’ remaining 71 regular season games are earmarked for the league’s national broadcasters, including ESPN and TNT.  That leaves 39 games where rights have yet to be announced.  And based on the aspirations of mercurial team owner Steve Ballmer, it’s highly likely that those rights will have a subscription component,  Ballmer has sought such a possibility since he took over the team from disgraced former owner Donald Sterling in 2014, and their deeper playoff runs in the 2020 bubble and in 2020-21 fueled the intensity of his demands.   The KTLA opportunity comes on the heels of his walking away from protracted and fruitless renewal negotiations with Bally Sports West, the successor to the FOX Sports West network that owned TV rights to the team since the mid-90s, consistently at a lower license fee than they paid the hockey Kings and, when they had them, the Lakers.

Ballmer, who made his billions with Microsoft, has made no secret of his desire to have the team take on a more prominent place in the Los Angeles market.  A new Inglewood arena, not far from the Lakers’ former Forum home, is under construction, which will allow them to have more home games outside of the man afternoon windows they are often relegated to as tertiary tenants at Crypto.

And a subscription TV model built around the Clippers, which would allow them to air shoulder and library programming, is much more in line with what the Lakers and Dodgers, not to mention teams in other sports with deeply passionate fans such as the Yankees and Cubs, have been doing.

If you read this space yesterday, you learned that Diamond Sports, the arm of Sinclair Broadcasting, who now controls Bally’s Sports West along with other RSNs, is having difficulty negotiating rights from MLB, NHL and NBA teams to allow them to start up subscription models that would allow their channels to be seen over the top, and avoid the realities that many MVPDs, including Dish Broadcasting, are no longer willing to pay the kind of license fees they historically have.  The Diamond Sports venture is rumored to be nearing bankruptcy, and the respective leagues are looking into buying them out and taking control of this distribution evolution on their own.

There’s little question that such a streaming-centric venture would benefit from the digital expertise of Ballmer, and the Los Angeles market represents a crown jewel of opportunity to exploit it.

And just so you think KTLA is merely seizing upon an opportunity for community goodwill, much needed as the station’s relatively new ownership has come under fire of late in the wake of the departures of two of their longer-serving news anchors, consider that Nexstar is perhaps Sinclair’s most ardent competitor in the world of local broadcasting.  The behemoths compete head-to-head in dozens of markets, often with multiple stations and without any significant third party in the mix.  Indeed, Nexstar had to outbid Sinclair for KTLA, not to mention WPIX, when former owner Tribune Broadcasting had their fire sale on their stations a few years back.   The lack of outlets in the nation’s top five markets has hampered Sinclair’s upside, while Nexstar now has significant traction in markets they were historically not a part of.

Don’t think for a second there isn’t just a little bit of knife-twisting at play with news that makes Nexstar look like a white knight in going back to the future with over-the-air games at a time when Sinclair has been at the forefront of moving them away from that end of the medium.

Still, even a limited schedule of games, with sixth and perhaps seventh men getting additional playing time, is more than cord-cutting Los Angeles sports fans have had access to for years.

So yes, celebrate the Clippers and KTLA’s reconciliation, even if it’s a small piece of a bigger chess game still being played out with what is far more likely to cost fans more to be fully invested in than in past seasons.  Just bear in mind that when you’re watching Maccabi trying to cover the spread, you’re more likely than ever to be clipped yourself later–in the wallet.



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