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Sinclair Swings For Fences, Could Remake Sports TV With Localized Streaming Service

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and LionTree are reportedly raising $250 million to fund a localized streaming service built on Sinclair’s 21 regional sports networks around the country, featuring games and other programming from 42 pro sports teams as well as college athletics.

The fundraising, reported Monday by the New York Post, would finance a potentially huge new entry in the complicated and fast-evolving world of sports programming, at a time when prices for TV rights are skyrocketing, tech companies are edging into the business, and traditional broadcast and cable partners are adding streaming rights to their league deals. For those legacy distributors, sports remains one of the few reliable drivers of appointment viewing left on the programming grid.

A Sinclair sports streamer also would cinch together two very large bets that Sinclair has made the past three years: spending nearly $10 billion on those 21 regional sports cable networks when Disney had to divest them after its massive Fox acquisition; and jumping into sports gambling, most notably with a 10-year naming rights deal with Bally’s for the RSNs (now called Bally Sports Regional Networks) that gave Sinclair $85 million and a 15-percent share in the casino operator, with potential to grow to 30 percent.

The New York Post story quoted a “director for an unaffiliated broadcaster” saying the deal, if consummated, “will change the industry more quickly than I imagined.”

Indeed. The network would only be available within the footprint of those 21 regional networks, but that includes many of the nation’s biggest markets, hardly surprising given that the markets have to be big enough to support a pro team in the first place. They include more than half of all the Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA teams in the United States, and markets such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Detroit, New Orleans, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, Kansas City, and Wisconsin.

A Bally’s/Sinclair SVOD service also would provide a hefty competitor in those 21 markets for Disney’s rather anemic ESPN+, which benefits hugely from bundling with Hulu and DIsney+ but hasn’t provided much of a case on its own for subscriber signups. One possible deterrent: a projected monthly subscription price of $23, far more than the $5 for ESPN+.

For hard-core fans, it might be worth it, especially given the pricing of other sports services such as skinny bundle Fubo TV and combat-sports-focused DAZN.

The service could also hasten the decline of the traditional cable bundle, particularly if other companies pull together streamed packages of the highest-value remaining cable content, Brad Samuels of Scripps Networks pointed out during today’s Stream TV conference.

“I think you’ll see some more deals like that picking off the best of the cable bundle,” said Samuels, Scripps’ VP of distribution partnerships and strategy. When that happens, “It’s a real slippery slope.”

A Sinclair network almost certainly would increase its attractiveness to sports fans with a significant overlay of Bally’s betting information, powered by the interactive and targeted possibilities of online streaming. That could similarly drive significant revenue opportunities for Sinclair, and likely is an area that Disney-owned ESPN may enter somewhat more gingerly.

Not mentioned in the Post report is what would happen with programming from the Y.E.S. Network, which carries the New York Yankees, which partnered with Sinclair and Amazon to buy back an available half share in that regional sports TV network. Nor is it clear what happens with the Marquee Network, which Sinclair launched last year in partnership with the Chicago Cubs. New York and Chicago are two of the three biggest TV markets and the teams two of the three or four most nationally popular franchises in baseball.

Sinclair, as owner of 186 broadcast stations in 87 mostly smaller markets, has also traditionally been dependent on local news and sports for revenue, especially in non-election years. But CEO/President Christopher Ripley has been pushing Sinclair to a more diversified future for several years now.

In 2018, at a New York NAB event and subsequently, Ripley talked with me about the potential for providing in-game betting information to viewers using ATSC 3.0 digital broadcasting technologies, which Sinclair has also championed. At the time, Ripley pointed out that tennis is the second-most wagered-on sport in Europe, and Sinclair cable network the Tennis Channel carries a vast array of tennis matches that could be leveraged in the United States as more states legalized sports gambling.

Then the company, with a market capitalization of around $3 billion, and a partner bought the former Fox RSNs from Disney in a $9.6 billion deal that dramatically shifted Sinclair’s financial center of gravity.

The RSN acquisition was a transformative move, but it’s been bedeviled almost from the start, particularly by the pandemic, which shut down live sports for months and drove even ardent fans to other kinds of programming, especially from streaming services.

And RSNs in particular have been vulnerable to the corrosive effects of cord-cutting, especially by cost-conscious customers who don’t care about sports. Cable operators have also tried to push the RSNs to premium tiers, out of basic cable packages, as a cost-cutting move.

Sinclair still claims 52 million cable subscribers for its sports networks as of the end of 2020, despite cord-cutting and the loss of carriage deals with Dish, YouTube TV and Hulu.

Plenty still needs to be done besides what should be a comparatively simpler task of raising a moderate amount of money in a still-overheated investment market. The service will require approvals from major sports leagues and teams to acquire local streaming rights alongside its existing cable deals.

And Sinclair will have to build out the network itself, and the attendant marketing, technology, and customer service infrastructure. The company has at least built some substantial capability there, with digital networks Comet TV, Charge!, TBD, and sports-focused Stadium. Sinclair also launched STIRR about 2.5 years ago, and reportedly has seen strong user growth in the hybrid AVOD service that also features local news, public affairs and sports programming from many of its broadcast markets.

Sinclair aims to launch the sports service by April, in time for next year’s Major League Baseball season start. The company projects it could have 4.4 million streaming customers by 2027, outstripping YouTube TV’s overall viewership, the Post pointed out.