Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Chris Ripley said Tuesday that additional streaming rights deals for its upcoming direct-to-consumer RSN service could be coming soon, adding that he believes the company has enough content in hand now to launch the product successfully.
Ripley, speaking at the Bank of America Leveraged Finance Virtual Conference on Nov. 30, said Sinclair is in “active and ongoing negotiations,” with the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association for streaming rights, and that although it only has rights from four major league baseball teams, that could change.
“I do think there will be some news around some of these renewal negotiations shortly,” Ripley said at the conference.
Sinclair has been under fire ever since MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in October that Sinclair hasn’t secured the necessary streaming rights for the direct-to-consumer service, hinting that teams may be reluctant to give away rights without a fight. The DTC service is considered to be crucial to the future health of the Sinclair RSNs, which have seen their subscriber rolls dwindle as traditional pay TV distributors have battled with cord cutting.
Sinclair has maintained that it will not waiver from its plan to launch the DTC service. Although the broadcaster has not said which MLB teams it has deals with, speculation has been that they are the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins, all of which -- with the exception of the Brewers, who were 95-67 this year -- posted losing records in 2021. The Tigers signed free agent shortstop Javier Baez earlier this week, which should boost interest in the club next season.
That could be a moot point as the MLB Players Association’s collective bargaining agreement with the league expires at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 1) and many are speculating that there could be a lockout. Even Ripley acknowledged if that happens, it could be bad news for the RSNs.
“I don't have any insight into the labor negotiations there, but if the season is delayed, we won't have key tentpole products to support both our linear channels and any new DTC,” Ripley said. “That definitely could have an impact on the start.”
Ripley also commented briefly on the recent carriage negotiation with Dish Network, where the broadcaster managed to secure a multi-year retransmission consent agreement, but could not reach a deal for the RSNs.
“We had a very lengthy, complex and difficult negotiation with Dish,” Ripley said at the conference, adding that he was happy there was no disruption in service to Dish customers. “The challenge with them is the RSNs have been off for two years and they have dropped every RSN from the portfolio that they could. So it was not going to be possible to get there.”
Ripley said it is “always a possibility” that Sinclair will return to the negotiating table with Dish for the RSNs, but added he is also pursuing other opportunities with distributors that don’t carry the channels.
Regarding opportunities, Ripley is still excited about the prospect of sports gambling, and added that its relationship with casino owner Bally's will be a big plus as it moves to launch its first gambling-oriented product.
Ripley said Sinclair is working with Bally’s on a “Watch and Play” offering centered on tennis, which he said is the second most bet-on sport in the world.
While still the most popular programming in terms of TV ratings, sports has hit a bit of a snag with younger viewers who don’t tend to devote the time to watch full games as much as older viewers do. Younger viewers tend to watch highlights, or snippets of games online, he said.
“The solution is to make it interactive. That’s the type of experience the younger generation is looking for,” Ripley said, adding that the idea is to offer younger viewers a lean-forward experience, with exciting graphics and rewards for watching in addition to the betting option. “Once we roll out a tennis ‘Watch and Play,’ we’ll move on to other major sports. We’re really excited about giving the consumer an integrated, exciting, interactive live betting experience. That’s probably one of the biggest things we’re working on with Bally's.” ■
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