Gadzooks! Local Sports’ Availability Is Going Back to The Future

I grew up in the days when local TV sports was prolific on over-the-air stations.  Well over 100 Mets games and almost as many Yankees games were carried on Channels 9 and 11 in New York, respectively, and Channel 9 supplemented that load year-round with significant packages of road games involving, at one time, five other pro teams.

In many other cities around the country, however, schedules were not quite as robust, and in almost all cases home games were infrequently carried, if at all.   Stations were handicapped both by old-school ownership being afraid that ticket sales would be hurt, as well as obligations to their networks or their broader audience.  Sports fans would simply have to check their obsession, they reasoned.

But when regional sports networks opened up the possibilities of virtually all games of all teams being carried, and where paying for the right to see it on cable was factored in, these networks were embraced and were able to extract far higher license fees than their actual viewership often pointed to.  The teams got paid, viewers were satisfied, and the gravy train was chugging.

As we know, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, accelerated by the ill-fated sale of the majority of these RSNs to Sinclair, who overpaid so dramatically that their networks are in bankruptcy, and many teams impacted have been unpaid.  In several markets, such as the Twin Cities, the DFW Metroplex and the cities in Ohio, changes are rumored.  In Phoenix, however, the first shoe has already dropped, as Alex Weprin of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER wrote this morning:

With the future of regional sports networks in doubt (Warner Bros. Discovery is looking to exit the business and hand control of its RSNs to its league partners, while the largest RSN owner Diamond Sports Group filed for bankruptcy last month), the NBA’s Phoenix Suns have cut a new rights deal that suggests an intriguing path forward for teams seeking to ensure their games are accessible to fans.

The deal combines an over-the-air broadcast rights deal with local TV giant Gray Television, as well as a streaming deal with Kiswe, which will help create a Suns and Mercury-branded direct-to-consumer streaming product. The Suns deal is for five years, with the Mercury deal lasting two years.  The deals will make the games available to more than 2.8 million households in the state, triple the availability of the old RSN. Games will be broadcast on KTVK, KPHA, and KPHE, with a minimum of 70 games being broadcast between the stations. Consumers who are cord-cutters will be able to access the games through the branded app.  “Cord cutters, cable subscribers, fans with an antenna – everyone will be able to watch Suns and Mercury games on Arizona’s Family,” said Suns and Mercury majority owner Mat Ishbia. 

Ishbia is a passionate billionaire who actually played college basketball at Michigan State who recently took over a Suns team that was previously owned by a misoygnistic and notriously stingy older person who was plagued by scandal, much like Steve Ballmer, who took over the Clippers from Donald Sterling several years ago.  The model that the Suns and Mercury are introducing is an extension of the one that Ballmer introduced this year with Clippervision, which returned 15 regular season games to Nexstar-owned KTLA for the first time in decades.   At the time, KTLA joined its sister station, WPIX in New York, in being the only over-the-air TV station in today’s world that offered a significant schedule of games, WPIX currently carrying a package of New York Mets games that has allowed it to become the only station in America to begin a 75th year with coverage of at least one local major league team.

The Phoenix market was ripe for something like this.  It’s a passionate sports market that, thanks to the excessive summer heat, actually has year-round opportunities for traditional TV unlike many other cities where HUT levels decline in warmer months.  After a dizzying array of affiliate switches in the mid-90s that the musical chairs surrounding FOX’s move to purchase a number of CBS-affiliated stations that allowed it to acquire national rights to the NFL, KTVK, then an ABC station , became a rare highly rated pure independent. They supplemented FOX Sports Arizona’s coverage of Diamondbacks games in the team’s earlier days until the allure of RSN carriage fees and the desire of teams to extract more and more money from carriers dried up even those packages.  Now, as RSN coverage has diminished, that model has broken, the main reason for the mess that Sinclair and Bally’s now find themselves in.  KTVK remains an extremely popular station and the addition of the Suns will assure it will have its own value to cable and satellite providers, as well as providing cord-cutters and cord-nevers with the chance to go over the top and subscribe without it.  So while it retains the upside at the top of the food chain, Ishmia’s teams are also not ignoring those at the bottom.

The Mercury will actually be available across the country on other over-the-air stations as well, on a broadcast network ironically owned by one of KTVK’s competitors in the Phoenix market, Scripps Television.  As The Sporting News’ Sarah Tidwell reported earlier this month:

On April 20, the WNBA inked yet another multiyear television deal, this one with Ion. The network plans to televise Friday night regular season games. (W)hile terms and details were not disclosed, the contract is in direct line with their current TV rights deal through ESPN and will also end in 2025. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert declined to reveal the value, but said it’s “a significant rights fee.”

The plan between the WNBA and Ion to televise Friday night regular season games equates to 44 games over 15 weeks, starting after opening weekend, between May 26 to Sept. 8.

Ion, which was bought by E.W. Scripps in 2020, is still new to the world of national sports television rights, having just launched its sports division in December. Ion is the fifth largest network in the country according to CEO Adam Symson. The network reaches 103 million homes through a connected TV and has 79 million paid subscribers.

The format is based on how the NFL does their beloved Sunday afternoons: a national game will be broadcast across the country as the week’s biggest matchup.

Scripps is also pursuing team and league rights for many of its local TV stations in several cities where Bally’s missteps are impacting revenue and fandom, including its hometown of Cincinnati and in Cleveland.  They also compete with Bally’s-owned RSNs in Kansas City, Detroit, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, San Diego and Tampa.  Once again, having rights to local games will increase the value of their stations to providers, which could also open the door to those providers, such as DirecTV and Comcast, to participate and offer further viable competition and avenues besides the road to disaster that Sinclair and its Diamond Sports team have many other markets on.  I’d keep my eyes open for possible movements in these cities, and with those entities,  down the road.

Ishbia is a mere pup age-wise, so perhaps he doesn’t quite have the memory and perspective that local TV once was the place to find his team’s games.  No worries.  People like myself are more than available to people like him and the Scripps team to help them reverse a generation of greed and keep local television in the game even as the allure of technology beckons otherwise.  We remember what is used to be like.  And, thanks to folks like you, we still have more seasons to look forward to.






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