“I think it’s a return this summer,” Ripley said during an online appearance in MoffettNathanson’s annual Media & Communications Summit. Based on his own conversations with league officials, as well as the increasing sense that restarting without fans in attendance is the leagues’ priority, “July has some potential for some of these leagues to start, or maybe August.”
The apparent agreement by teams and players to forgo gate receipts “is not an easy economic decision,” Ripley told moderator Michael Nathanson. “There are some tradoffs there and some shared pain.” That strategic direction “is important,” the exec added, “because most people don’t think a [COVID-19] vaccine’s going to be around until next year. Are you really going to put 30,000 people into a building when there’s no vaccine yet?”
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Sports leagues, along with many other parts of society and the economy, have been in a two-month freeze due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, dealing a major blow to broadcasters and leaving sports fans restless. Billions in advertising revenue has already evaporated. Sinclair is a major stakeholder in sports, operating the No. 2 portfolio of local TV stations in the U.S. and also as the lead of a consortium that acquired the former Fox-owned regional sports networks.
Ripley said it would be possible that some rebates would be given to MVPDs for games not aired. Backlash has mounted in recent months, catching the attention of officials like New York State Attorney General Letitia James, over the sports fees of $20 a month and up that pay-TV operators continue to assess to customers.
Nathanson asked about whether pay-TV subscribers represented the vast majority of the sports marketplace, or whether some viewers could be reached in other ways. “We’re doing a lot of research into that,” Ripley said. “There are more sports fans outside the bundle than you may think.”
Ripley said he expected to come to terms with Comcast on carriage of RSNs, including the just-launched Marquee network, a joint venture with the Chicago Cubs. Talks never heated up because of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the acknowledgement that the spring start to the baseball season would be significantly delayed.
Nathanson also asked Ripley about the NFL and its deal to provide streaming partner Amazon with an additional prime-time game in 2020. The CEO said he expects “a minor amount of leakage” of premium sports out of the premium bundle. Even so, Ripley does not expect major rights contracts set to expire in 2022 to see a changing of the guard, as some have predicted, with tech giants like Google or Amazon scooping up weekly rights from NBC, ViacomCBS or Fox.
“From everything I’m hearing and expecting, you’re going to largely see status quo from the NFL in this latest round of renewals,” Ripley said. As to what financial impact Sinclair’s stations will see from what is apt to be a pricey re-up, he said, “I’m sure we’ll need to pitch in a bit more,” though the marketplace had been so robust prior to the pandemic that broadcast networks “have a lot more resources now, they have a lot more cash coming in.”
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