“When they were owned by Turner, the Braves played a prominent role in pushing baseball’s economics to its current model, one that present-day commissioner Rob Manfred has said can be thought of as two businesses: the in-person experience at the ballpark and media distribution.” — Evan Drellich, “Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Biggest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess”
Earlier in the season, AT&T SportsNet, the regional sports network that had broadcast Rockies’ games since 1997, announced it would no longer air the team’s games after the season ended. As players walked around Coors Field thanking fans, the Rockies were about to find themselves without a broadcast home.
In this, they are not alone.
Last March, the Diamond Sports Group declared bankruptcy and by mid-July had stopped airing Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres games. At that point. MLB stepped in to produce the broadcasts, which were available to local fans via cable or an additional MLB.tv subscription.
The effects of this bankruptcy will be widespread, the result of a rapidly changing media landscape due to cord cutting and the rise of streaming. For expert analysis, I recommend reading Ben Clemens (FanGraphs), Travis Sawchik (The Score), and Hannah Keyser (Yahoo! Sports).
Clearly, I’m no expert on broadcast media. Rather, my purpose here is to detail what we know about the Rockies’ situation and suggest some possible outcomes.
How were the MLB-produced broadcasts, and what’s the plan?
When the D-backs were at Coors Field in August, I asked one of their broadcast personnel about the change. She told me there was no significant difference, save that they no longer had a pre-game show.
As a viewer, I noticed MLB did a brief — say, 10-minute — pregame in which the broadcasters introduced the lineups and big stories of the day. The broadcast itself was standard — with a live feed from the replay room in New York when there was a challenge. After the game ended, one reporter (to use an AT&T SportsNet equivalent, Kelsey Wingert) would cover the manager’s post-game interview while the broadcast team (say, Drew Goodman and Ryan Spilborghs) went on the field to review game highlights and talk with a player.
It was a serviceable, if bare-bones, production.
In terms of money, the league guaranteed that any team with games broadcast by MLB would receive 80% of their original contract. (If you wonder how that worked out, Keyser reports, “According to someone with direct knowledge of the situation, the league took a small loss as part of fulfilling that guarantee.”)
Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated the League is prepared to assume responsibility for 16 broadcasts in 2024. However, MLB will no longer guarantee that 80%.
Keyser explains how this would work:
Teams that do not have other RSN deals will be part of MLB Media. The league will broker a deal with local cable distributors, sell advertising against those games and give the advertising money back to the team. Those teams’ games will also be available direct-to-consumer through MLB.tv, as was the case for the Padres and D-backs last year. Revenue from out-of-market subscriptions will belong centrally to the league, as it always has, but in-market subscriptions and in-market advertising revenue will go to the local clubs.
It’s part of a larger plan. Keyser’s reporting indicates that, ultimately, MLB hopes to use this as a means for further equalizing team revenues: “But as part of the ultimate end goal, according to people with knowledge of the league’s thinking, all media revenue would be centralized and distributed more equally, leveling the payroll disparity that is believed to be a detriment to baseball reaching its full business potential.”
I suspect that media powerhouses like the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers won’t be excited about sharing that money with smaller-market teams. (But that’s Rob Manfred’s problem.)
Is there any news about the Rockies broadcast plans going forward?
Last week, Patrick Lyons asked Bill Schmidt about the state of the current contract. Below is Schmidt’s answer.
Rockies games will be on television, somewhere, in 2024 according to GM Bill Schmidt.— Patrick Lyons (@PatrickDLyons) December 5, 2023
As far as the financial implications of losing broadcast partner AT&T SportsNet and it’s impact on Colorado’s payroll, that hasn’t been determined yet. pic.twitter.com/JaIe2bTgoE
Some fans hoped that perhaps Altitude Sports would attempt to secure the Rockies broadcast rights. This would provide them with programming when the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche are out of season in addition to giving the network leverage in their stymied negotiations with Comcast.
So far, there’s no indication that will happen.
What do we know about the Rockies’ contract and viewership?
No matter how bad the team, one revenue stream the Rockies could rely on was its broadcast deal. As Lyons explains:
When the Rockies signed an extension with AT&T SportsNet in Sept. 2019, owner Dick Monfort said soon during the team’s media availability, “It’s not as lucrative as I wanted it to be, but it’s more money.” According to Forbes, those annual rights fees totaled $57 million in 2022, 10th-lowest among the 29 clubs in the United States. Now, that influx from broadcasting fees is less certain.
That’s the first piece of the puzzle: Roughly $57 million in certain revenue appears to be gone from the Rockies’ coffers.
Patrick Saunders reported on October 17, “I’ve been told that the Rockies anticipate that a new TV setup will provide the club with revenue similar to what they were receiving through their partnership with AT&T SportsNet.” He goes on to point out, however, there’s no guarantee that will happen.
This raises a second question that’s going to become relevant if the Rockies must sell TV subscriptions: How many people watch Rockies games?
In 2022, Rockies broadcasts carried the third-lowest ratings in the majors, ahead of only the Oakland A’s and Miami Marlins, according to Nielsen Media viewership numbers. The Rockies on AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain regularly rank among the bottom of the league in TV ratings.
According to the Forbes article Groke cites, about 15,000 watched each Rockies television broadcast in 2022. If my math is correct, the average television viewership of a Rockies game is less than half of those attending a game at Coors Field (32,467). In that past, those low numbers didn’t matter because regardless of who was (or wasn’t) watching, the Rockies got paid. That’s probably no longer the case.
What might this mean for the Rockies?
It’s impossible to predict with certainty, but here’s my best attempt.
- The Rockies will probably join MLB Media in 2024 — After all, the Rockies would stand to benefit from the kind of revenue sharing MLB hopes to achieve, so they are incentivized to get in early — and it’s not like other RSNs are clamoring to broadcast baseball games. It may be that MLB will add more to their broadcast production in 2024, but we’ve probably watched our last episode of “The Club.”
- The Rockies will have less certainty in their budget — Given that MLB will not guarantee 80% of the television contract, the Rockies may have less money to work with and less certainty about how much money they will receive. (Sawchik reported that the Cleveland Guardians DFA’d Cal Quantrill to save money because of concerns about their own broadcast contract.) If MLB’s dream of revenue sharing is realized, it won’t happen in the near term.
- Some of the Rockies’ crows are coming home to roost — To go back to that quote from Evan Drellich, MLB teams have two businesses: the in-park experience and media distribution. The Rockies have largely focused on the former, benefitting from a remarkable public facility. Coors Field is considered the “best bar in Colorado” for a reason.
- That said, being a LoDo hot spot does nothing to incentivize viewers at home to pay a subscription fee. (That was $19.99/month or $74.99 for the rest of the Padres’ season, $54.99 for the D-backs. Keyser reports that the Padres sold 18,000 in-market subscriptions.) Of those 15,000 Rockies fans watching at home, how many will pay for a subscription to watch a uncompetitive team?
Dick Monfort has made clear he will not overspend his budget — and in a rebuilding year, the team shouldn’t. But there’s more at stake here than where the Rockies will be streaming in 2024.
Today in “Shohei Ohtani continues to surprise and amaze”
The contract details here are stunning (and bad news for the Rockies who surely hoped the Dodgers had spent all their money on Ohtani’s contract).
Exclusive @TheAthletic: Shohei Ohtani will defer $68 million per year of his $70 million annual salary over the course of his 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers, allowing the team to keep spending, according to a person briefed on the terms.https://t.co/IsnWlsbTq9— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) December 11, 2023
Look, a team wants to spend money and win baseball games. I respect it.
After the Rockies suffered their first 100-loss season, a logical question to ask is if the franchise can replicate the rebounds of the Rangers and Diamondbacks. Patrick Saunders notes that the Rangers became successful by spending money while the D-backs relied on player development and some shrewd trades. Can the Rockies do this? “That’s a tough row to hoe,” Saunders writes.
I’m always looking for interesting pieces to share, especially during the offseason when there’s not much Rockies news. Here’s this week’s recommendation: a conversation between D-backs general manager Mike Hazen, tattoo artist Bubba Irwin of Old Town Ink, and Mike Reum. The three discuss a sleeve Irwin tattooed on Hazen’s left arm. (After Hazen’s wife, Nicole, died of glioblastoma, he wanted to memorialize their life together.) It’s about love, family, and grief — and, of course, baseball.
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