What Does the Return of the Clippers to Broadcast TV Mean to the RSN Business?

Paul George No. 3 of the LA Clippers dribbles past CJ McCollum No. 3 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half of a game at Crypto.com Arena on April 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Paul George and the Clippers are returning to local broadcast TV this season. (Image credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Updated: This story was updated on Sept. 22 to reflect the fact that the Clippers are still negotiating with Sinclair Broadcast Group to stay on Bally Sports West & SoCal.

In terms of TV rights licensing, the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers are the equivalent of an unsigned, high-priced free-agent player. And the team, owned by deep-pocketed Microsoft cofounder Steve Ballmer, just made a bold decision to move some of its games this upcoming season back to the broadcast station it departed 13 years ago. 

Starting September 30, four Clippers pre-season games and eleven 2022-23 regular-season contests will be broadcast by Nexstar Media Group-owned KTLA, which was the broadcast home for the team from 1985-1991 and 2002-2009. Games will also be simulcast on KSWB San Diego, KGET Bakersfield and KSEE Fresno. 

"We are putting games on KTLA as a calculated move, so that Clippers games can be accessible to anyone with a TV or the internet in Southern California. We’re excited to reach more fans," a team spokeswoman told Next TV.

The agreement to show a limited portion of the team’s games comes as the Clippers are still negotiating with Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary Diamond Sports to keep the team's games on regional sports channel Bally Sports West & SoCal. The Clippers open training camp next week, and their first pre-season game is on Sept. 30, but no renewal has been hammered out yet. 

In 2015, the Clippers signed a six-year deal with the pre-Disney-acquisition Fox, valued at a reported $50 million-$55 million per season, to keep its games on Fox Sports West. (That channel, along with the rest of Fox’s RSNs, was sold to Sinclair in 2019 and rebranded under the Bally Sports moniker.)

Is this yet another referendum on the declining state of regional sports networks? Perhaps. 

But it’s probably more of an indicator of the influx state of the Clippers, long a perennial doormat under the ownership of flamboyant, and ultimately highly controversial real-estate developer Donald Sterling, but more recently under Ballmer, an emerging L.A. market threat to the long-dominant darling Lakers. 

Ballmer purchased the Clippers in 2014 for a record $2 billion, following a scandal over racist language that forced Sterling to sell the team.

The Lakers are about halfway through a 20-year, $3 billion RSN deal signed a decade ago with the erstwhile Time Warner Cable. Now under the control of Charter Communications, Spectrum SportsNet is paying the Lakers around three times as much — $150 million per season — than the Clippers were making with their previous Bally Sports deal. 

A scour of the internet reveals little news about the negotiations between Diamond Sports Group and the Clippers, but the team, now a perennial playoff contender featuring stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, almost undoubtedly wants a significant raise. 

For its part, Bally Sports West & SoCal is also the exclusive RSN home to Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, and the National Hockey League's L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks — teams that don't carry nearly the consumer demand in the region as, say, the Lakers or the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Ballmer and the Clippers recently revealed plans to move into a new, privately funded $1.8 billion facility, the Intuit Dome, in 2024, a shift that will upgrade the team’s status from mere second-class tenants at Downtown L.A.’s recently re-monikered Crypto.com Arena, otherwise known as the place where the Lakers hang their 16 NBA Championship banners. 

Yes, the Clippers clearly harbor ambitions of finally stepping out of the Lakers’ shadow and progressing from being a “tier 2” SoCal pro sports team. But Diamond, which was $8.6 billion in debt as of the second quarter, probably isn't in a position to give the team much of a raise. 

Renewing with Diamond and Bally Sports, meanwhile, would also quell any direct-to-consumer ambitions that Ballmer and the Clippers might be entertaining. Diamond will launch DTC streaming service Bally Sports Plus across the Bally national footprint on Sept. 26. Thanks to a streaming deal signed with the NBA earlier this year, Bally Sports Plus would have had the rights to stream Clippers games not shown on national networks like TNT and ESPN to anyone in the SoCal market with or without a pay TV subscription.

So why don’t the Clippers move to the Spectrum SportsNet empire? Again, resources might be an issue for Charter, with the cable company still locked into a 25-year, $8.35 billion deal with the Dodgers signed back in January 2013. 

Amid the shrinking pay TV ecosystem, companies like Sinclair/Diamond and Charter aren't adding RSN customers these days. 

So that leaves the Clippers at a bit of a crossroads, pondering their next move. For his part, the digitally literate Ballmer considered taking the team's games DTC back in 2016 before Fox Sports doubled the $25 million a season it had been paying the team. 

Putting a handful of games on broadcast TV keeps some level of fan engagement going until Ballmer and company can figure out their next move. But we wouldn't be at all surprised to see a “Clippers Plus” streaming product emerge before the upcoming season ends. ▪️

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!