E.W. Scripps in Talks to Take Over NBA, MLB Broadcasts as Regional Sports Networks Flounder
As owners and operators of regional sports networks (RSNs) decide to abandon the channels, or find themselves drowning under the weight of their own debt, the teams they cover might just find a life preserver floating their way.
That’s according to a new report from Front Office Sports, which states that the E.W. Scripps Company has been in contact with multiple teams in the NBA and MLB regarding broadcast rights to their games if the RSNs operated by Bally Sports and its parent company Diamond Sports Group (DSG) end up without a bankruptcy solution, and cannot air the contracted games.
“In the last two weeks, some of the leagues are suddenly in contingency mode trying to figure out what happens if Bally stiffs them – and stops production in the next month,” Scripps Sports head Brian Lawlor said. “So we’ve had quite a few conversations with the leagues and the teams, just helping them identify where we can be a solution for them.”
Scripps has been bidding on the local broadcast rights to certain teams since at least December. But as bankruptcy proceedings have gotten more serious for Diamond Sports in recent weeks, some teams have approached Scripps to ensure there’s no disruption in coverage if DSG can’t find a way to meet its obligations, especially as the baseball season approaches.
“There are teams in the NBA that are currently in the last year of their RSN deal and don’t have a solution for next season. So we’re in conversations with some of them,” Lawlor said. “We’ve probably had direct conversations with close to a dozen teams – and three or four major leagues.”
Recently, Scripps has been circling Major League Baseball games intently. It believes it has a profitable formula for producing and broadcasting MLB games, since it owns 61 network affiliates in 41 markets, and wouldn’t have to be reliant on large subscriber bases and carriage fees to make money. This would stand in contrast to most RSN networks that exist primarily on cable.
There would be contractual complications involved in the process that Scripps would need to overcome, most notably that since the company owns affiliates for various networks, it would not be allowed to broadcast games on those channels due to various other national obligations. However, because Scripps often owns multiple channels in markets, it would be able to put games on other channels in the region, or even purchase additional channels or work with existing networks to make sure the games got on the air; all clearly options that the company is ready to work out.
MLB has other contingency plans in the wings, as well. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that the league will make use of its own assets — namely MLB Network and MLB.TV — to show games if RSNs cannot meet their obligations. The league also recently formed a local broadcasting group, in preparation to take over the duties for up to 17 teams.
There are still a lot of moving parts in the RSN drama, and many ways that it could resolve itself. Games could revert back to Bally Sports RSNs, broadcasts could be taken over by their own leagues or teams, or rights could be sold to third parties like Scripps. Lawlor says Scripps has had discussions about direct-to-consumer streaming offerings, but is focused on putting more games on TV for the present, if it gets its hands on broadcast rights.
“I think it’s a unique moment in time. I think it was headed this way anyway. Teams and leagues need reach,” Lawlor said. “There’s all this talk about direct-to-consumer, and that’s terrific, and they get to own their data. But at the end of the day, teams and leagues need to be visible to their fans.”