Skip to main content

Fall Season Brings RSN Lineup Changes

Regional sports networks offer local, live programming that’s so important, distributors complain to regulators when they can’t gain access to it. It’s so crucial — and expensive — that distributors increasingly are acquiring RSNs, or even starting new ones, to maintain supply and hopefully manage the costs.

Groups of RSNs have been assembled under News Corp.’s Fox Sports Net operations and under NBCUniversal’s NBC Sports Group, which is controlled by Comcast. Other RSNs are independently owned and operated. This report profiles the current state of RSNs, their leadership and their market environments. It was reported and written by Stuart Miller.


Networks: 20 outlets including Fox Sports North, Fox Sports West, Fox Sports Southwest, Prime Ticket, Fox Sports Carolinas and Fox Sports San Diego

Teams: Include Los Angeles Dodgers; Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Atlanta Braves; Tampa Bay Rays; Miami Marlins; Minnesota Twins; St. Louis Blues; Indiana Pacers

When it comes to RSNs, the biggest name is FSN. Fox Sports Net is no one market player — it has 20 networks, producing more than 5,000 live sports events each year, most of which feature MLB, NBA and NHL teams.

Over time, FSN has suffered losses, of course, particularly in major markets — this year, the Houston Astros and Rockets shifted to Comcast; other defections in past years have included the New York Mets and Chicago and Bay Area teams — but it continues finding new ground. In 2012, it added New Orleans and San Diego, taking over from Cox Communications in both cases.

“Cox had struggled to get full distribution,” executive vice president Jeff Krolik said, noting that FSN has doubled the coverage of Cox Sports Television in New Orleans, adding DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse and spreading coverage across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Fox Sports San Diego has nearly full distribution, with Time Warner Cable as the RSN’s lone holdout.

“We are very aggressive and think there are a lot of opportunities for growth,” Krolik said. Additionally, the parent company has an easier time absorbing the natural down cycles of most sports teams than a single- market RSN — if the Minnesota Timberwolves are struggling, for instance, then Fox Sports can boost its bottom line with Oklahoma City Thunder ratings, Krolik explained.

The formula provides “a lot of advantages,” Krolik said, because the Fox Sports networks are able to tap into “the passion of the community” on a local level, but share Fox’s syndicated non-live sports programming. “We’re pretty decentralized, and our general managers are terrific,” Krolik said. “We can also provide national marketing deals, which is why teams want to partner with us. We are selling a bundle.”


Networks: Comcast SportsNet channels in Philadelphia, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

Teams: Include Philadelphia Phillies; Chicago Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks; San Francisco Giants; Houston Astros, Rockets.

Jon Litner is group president of NBC Sports Group, a relatively new concoction. But the regional sports networks he oversees have a name that’s much more well-known in the RSN game, Comcast SportsNet. Starting with Comcast’s home turf in Philadelphia, the company has started or acquired almost a dozen networks, most in the biggest markets, including New York (although SNY, co-owned by the New York Mets and Time Warner Cable, doesn’t bear the Comcast name), Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and, starting this fall, Houston. The group puts more than 2,400 live events on the small screen annually, with an especially powerful presence in Philadelphia, where the network televises the Phillies, 76ers and Flyers; Chicago, where it has the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks; and Northern California, where it televises the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and San Jose Sharks.

The NBC presence gives Comcast SportsNet an edge, says Litner — when the U.S. Open golf tournament is played in San Francisco, the Golf Channel, NBC Sports Network and the local NBC station, along with the RSN, are cross-promoting an event that drives up local pride and interest. When the Houston Texans are on Sunday Night Football, the NBC Sports crew comes to town early and the RSN can get interviews with announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. NBC Sports Network and the RSNs also can act as news bureaus for each other, sharing interviews and information when the situation arises.

But Litner makes sure that the channels remain “hyper local,” covering, for instance, high school football, a rodeo in Houston or high school hockey in New England. “Those programs also have life as a VOD product,” he added. “That’s all part of the model that we’ve built to create a destination based on being very local.”


Networks: Root Sports Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain, Northwest

Teams: Include Pittsburgh Pirates and Penguins, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners.

Root Sports Networks was born in 2011. It was a branding plan from DirecTV Sports, which had acquired a trio of networks — now Root Sports Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain and Northwest — from Fox Sports in 2008.

In the three intervening years, DirecTV shed the syndicated Fox Sports Net programming and created everything from new graphics (winning a silver medal at Promax/BDA this year for art direction and design) to new production elements like super slo-mo and radio-frequency cameras that can go into dugouts.

“We wanted to have national broadcast-level production values,” Root Sports president Patrick Crumb said.

The Root moniker was chosen for its many layers, Crumb said, signifying both rooting for the home team and roots in the community. It also can’t be shortened into an acronym, like FSN or CSN (if you made an acronym of Root Sports Network, though, it would be RSN).

Given the sprawling territories these three networks cover, Root is making sure not to be tied down to its home base.

So while the Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners are the anchors of the three networks both because “baseball is the best tentpole for an RSN” and because they are the home team in the market’s biggest city, Root also looked farther afield with deals for West Virginia University in the Pittsburgh market; the NBA’s Utah Jazz and the Mountain West Conference (spanning from New Mexico to Wyoming) in the Rocky Mountain region; and the Big Sky Conference, which will cover the furthest reaches of both the Rocky Mountain and Northwest networks.

“We have great rivalries in these packages, like Montana versus Montana State,” Crumb said. “Washington is 1,500 miles away from Montana and we need to cover all that territory.”


Networks: Time Warner Cable SportsNet, Time Warner Cable Deportes

Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, Galaxy, Sparks

RSN affiliate negotiations almost always seem to come down to the last minute. With the Los Angeles Lakers and their new Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the start of the regular season helped bring the magic. “That’s when the pressure came to bear,” said David Rone, president of TWC Sports, who finalized a deal with holdout Cox Communications just as the shots started to count.

The Lakers’ off -season maneuvers, particularly bringing in veteran guard Steve Nash and superstar center Dwight Howard, gave the network extra leverage. “The team has been doing a tremendous job,” Rone said. “When they got Howard, we were running around like a bunch of boys and girls, jumping and highfiving each other.”

Even without Howard, of course, the Lakers are a special franchise with a “championship heritage,” Rone said, along with excellent management that prevents many down cycles. And the team has a rabid following. The network is counting on that devotion to carry ratings through the out-of-season months (though it also partners with two other teams, the WNBA’s Sparks and Major League Soccer’s Galaxy). TWC SportsNet will offer such programs as Timeless, which features classic games; interview show Connected With …, featuring current and retired Lakers; and Floor Seats, an only-in-Los Angeles series, which will get up close with the Lakers’ most famous front-row fans, like Jack Nicholson.

This being L.A., however, many of those loyal fans speak Spanish, not English, so TWC SportsNet has broken new ground in the RSN field by launching a second network, Time Warner Cable Deportes, devoted to Spanish speakers. “This is not just a secondary audio feed but a full 24-hour network,” Rone said. “The Spanish-speaking population is so huge and they have such an interest in the Lakers, so we’re very proud to have made this commitment.”

Starting two networks at once in just 16 months was “hairy,” Rone noted, especially given the time frame, though there were some economies of scale. But even that wasn’t ambitious enough — the network also took advantage of the fact that it didn’t need a Spanish SAP and decided to create a Korean-language secondary audio feed for all Lakers games. “We wanted to do something for that burgeoning marketplace, too,” Rone said.


Network: YES Network

Teams: New York Yankees, Brooklyn Nets

When you’re the highestrated RSN year in and year out and when you have Major League Baseball’s winningest franchise, you already have a lot going for you. But the rich just got richer in New York, as YES, which is built around the Yankees, should reap the benefits of the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn and its attendant enthusiasm. “The Nets were a lame duck in New Jersey and in Brooklyn we have nothing but upside in terms of ratings, ad sales and the affiliates,” says YES president and CEO Tracy Dolgin.

The network, which won local Emmy Awards for its Nets coverage “even when no one was watching,” has stepped up production with additions like robotic cameras and extra microphones. “We want it to have the level of production we have with the Yankees,” Dolgin says, adding that for this year the emphasis is on game, pre and post-game coverage and that as the Nets build a fan base YES will broaden its shoulder programming.

These days, however, Dolgin is bullish not just on the Nets, not just on YES, but on all RSNs. “Sports has a stickiness factor that distributors want,” he said, pointing out that each technological advancement — like TV Everywhere or the possibility of eventually interacting via voice-activated social media on your TV— enhances the advantage of carrying live, water cooler events that people socialize during and bond over. Sports is becoming more valuable to the distributor, to advertisers and to consumers.” This, of course, means RSNs in general and YES in particular will be able to justify higher rates for distributors, Dolgin argued, while low-end networks will have to lower their rates to stay on.

YES is particularly valuable because of the Yankees, who draw a lot of high income, low-TV-watching decision makers in New York, a demographic that appeals to advertisers.

“I think we can do an even better job of selling that,” Dolgin said, adding that the Yankees also draw equally well at the fringes of the network footprint, a rarity for an RSN. And YES was the first RSN to gain cable distribution outside its home market. Its national feed — without games, but with plenty of other Yankees programming — is now seen in 5 million homes from Boston to Texas. “I think we can double that total,” Dolgin said. “We are picking up more and more cable systems—there are so many ex-New Yorkers and Yankee fans across the countries and we provide a way for distributors to differentiate themselves.”


Networks: Pac-12 Network; seven regional networks.

Teams: Conference members include Oregon, USC, UCLA, Arizona, Washington.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott first conceived the idea of a network for his conference because “the schools and the content were undervalued and underleveraged,” says Pac-12 Networks general manager Lydia Murphy-Stephans. “This concept enabled the conference to take control of its own destiny and maximize its value.”

Scott’s enthusiasm created one daunting challenge for the seven-network RSN, which debuted in August. Murphy-Stephans says an aggressive approach typically gets a network launched in 18 months; the Pac-12 did it in about a year. “We had to look at what really needed to be in place and what we could take shortcuts on and then double back to do later,” she said, adding that in the final month she had 100 contractors working simultaneously. (Not working one aspect at a time was one major fast-tracking strategy.) “I did age significantly.”

The RSN had a deal with the major cable firms (Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Comcast, and Bright House Networks) in place at the start, but DirecTV is still not on board. “We’d love to have them, but we can certainly survive without them,” Murphy-Stephans said.

Pac-12 has a unique setup because the conference owns the network and because it has one national channel (which will televise 350 live events from year one) and six other networks, each focusing on a pair of rival schools like USC and UCLA or Arizona and Arizona State (in year one, there’ll be 200 live events spread across those six; within two years, there’ll be 500). While a purely collegebased network will have significant downtime in summer, Murphy-Stephans is confi dent that a mix of evergreen programs (documentaries, list shows, classic games) will suffice. And she said that while the schools are competitive with each other on the field and in recruiting players and coaches, they know that not all schools are equal — some may get more live football coverage on the national network, for instance. “We just have to strive and find a reasonable balance,” she said.


Networks: MSG, MSG Plus

Teams: New York Knicks, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, New York Red Bulls

MSG is “the granddaddy of RSNs,” in the words of MSG Media president Michael Bair. Yet in order to thrive in the nation’s most competitive media market it must remain committed to looking ahead, “to being innovative and growth-oriented.”

Of course, MSG Networks isn’t just MSG these days — its two networks, MSG and MSG Plus, which had been Fox Sports New York until the New York Mets left to create their own RSN at SNY. While MSG Networks doesn’t have baseball, it offers pro and college basketball and dominates local National Hockey League action when the sport isn’t locked out.

It also has a unique brand in Madison Square Garden itself and, since, the company also runs the prestigious Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theater, MSG has done something few RSNs can do, expanding beyond sports to feature concerts and other events. “MSG Networks serve as a vital distribution system and powerful platform for our marquee brands and assets,” Hank Ratner, president and CEO of the Madison Square Garden Co., said.

This approach is also “about value for the distributors, since they are our primary revenue stream,” Bair said, adding the new content also provides syndicated opportunities internationally that few other RSNs can match.

All told, with college sports, boxing and horse racing, MSG and MSG Plus carry more than 700 live events per year, Bair said. “It can be a Rubik’s Cube of scheduling,” Bair said, adding that MSG has learned to cope without baseball by building themed nights in summer, like entertainment networks, so audiences know what to find. (Programming ranges from training camps to New York and sports-themed movie nights.)

The telecasts are high-quality — over the past five years, MSG Networks has totaled 77 New York Emmy Awards, including 69 for MSG, more than any other the local station. Beyond garnering awards and strong ratings, Bair says, there’s one more crucial sign of growth that shows him the networks are on the right track. “We’ve had extraordinary growth in ad sales over those five years.”


Network: SNY

Teams: New York Mets, Big East Conference

When SportsNet New York debuted in 2006, New York already had two successful RSNs, MSG and YES. But SNY carved out a niche with a unique approach — while MSG was moving away from general sports newscasts to focus on programming related specifically to its teams, SNY decided to pitch itself as the place for all New York sports.

“We saw it as an opportunity,” SNY president Steve Raab said. “It was logical; this was fertile ground.”

Raab says early on it was challenging persuading consumers and the media that they wouldn’t show overt favoritism for the home team. “We demonstrated that SportsNite is not just for Mets fans — if the Yankees have a more compelling story on a certain day they will lead the newscast,” Raab sid. (The bigger challenge these days is that SNY is more successful than the Mets, beleaguered on the ball field and in the bottom line. Team ownership — which controls 70% of SNY, with Comcast and Time Warner Cable owning the rest — was so pressed for money that it saddled the increasingly valuable network with more debt and even had SNY buy a minority share in the Mets, even though the team owns most of the network.) In baseball’s off -season, the network has a relationship with the NFL’s New York Jets, but relies heavily on college sports, thanks to a 2008 deal with the Big East and a 2010 partnership with the University of Connecticut’s men’s football and basketball teams. This year, SNY further solidifi ed its ties to UConn by signing on with its powerhouse women’s hoops team. While the entire SNY market will see UConn games, Raab is taking SNY “hyper local” by providing the Connecticut portion of its market “a separate feed that allows us to customize with UConn programming beyond the games.”

“I don’t know if there’ll be further geographic segmentation,” Raab says but he does believe that RSNs need to look beyond the “one size fits all” approach whenever possible. And, he said, as college conferences continue to realign, SNY will “be aggressive” in seeking out new programming opportunities.


Teams: Cleveland Indians, Mid-American Conference

At SportsTime Ohio, it all starts with the Cleveland Indians — the club started the network without cable investment — but that doesn’t mean the Indians are the network’s be all and end all. The network has been a partner with the Cleveland Browns from day one, covers tons of high school sports and, two years ago, the network signed on with the Mid-American Conference for football, basketball and even some coverage of other sports. This year, the network even added pro lacrosse with the Ohio Machine.

“We take advantage of our independence,” SportsTime Ohio president Jim Liberatore said. “There are no programs forced on us from the mother ship, where they say, ‘We just did this deal so you have to show this.’ ”

The network keeps the focus very local with fare like Cover Lines, a show about Ohio’s athletes and teams; Tee It Up Ohio, a local golf program; and Beer Money, a local trivia show. The one exception is its coverage of Notre Dame football, but Liberatore points to the vast number of Fightin’ Irish alumni who live in the market.

Even with its thorough coverage of the Tribe — which includes not just typical pre- and postgame shows but a weekly minor league magazine show, Triple-A Columbus Clippers games and a roundtable program with former Indians — Liberatore said “ownership has allowed talent announcing games or hosting call-in shows to be very honest” (And this is a team that finished above .500 just once since the 2006 launch of the network.)

The network even has freedom to cover and promote the Cleveland Cavaliers, even though the team’s games are on Fox Sports Ohio, “which gives us no access to the players,” Liberatore says.

Back before LeBron James left, before one big playoff game, SportsTime even pre-empted its programming to put a sign up on the screen saying “Go Cavs” and telling viewers to switch over to FS Ohio and cheer on the home team.

“We have to forget the competition and remember that we are here for the fans.”

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.