The Phoenix Suns and Mercury are cutting the cord. As dozens of professional sports teams and the leagues themselves navigate the collapse of the regional sports network market and the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group’s Bally Sports Networks, new owner Mat Ishbia has a bold solution. The billionaire owner is opting to take direct control of their television rights and broadcasting the games for free on television while developing a direct-to-consumer streaming option online.
The news comes via Brian Windhorst at ESPN, who writes the move could cost the Suns “tens of millions in guaranteed money per year in the short term.”
The gambit is bold, with Ishbia seemingly trading the rights fees received from Bally Sports or another cable alternative for easier access and increased viewership among casual fans. That could also lead to higher ticket sales at the gate and buys plenty of quality, free PR from fans who have already cut cable have grown frustrated with the cost and unreliability of Bally’s streaming platform and its removal from other streaming content providers over the years.
The move is so intriguing that I, a humble Detroit Pistons reporter, is writing it up and wondering if it’s something the Pistons under owner billionaire Tom Gores would consider something similar.
Gores is not shy about opening up the checkbook since buying the team — including tens of millions to renovate the Palace of Auburn Hills even as he had his sights set on a move to Little Caesars Arena within a couple of years.
Bally Sports Detroit is embroiled in the same bankruptcy drama as all of the other RSNs in the Bally portfolio. Earlier this month, Major League Baseball filed an emergency motion after the parent company missed rights payments to the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians.
In late 2018, the Illitch family, who own the Detroit Tigers and fellow LCA residents the Detroit Red Wings, put out word that they were officially exploring creating their own RSN to air Tigers and Red Wings games. This announcement was concurrent to Disney acquiring Twenty-First Century Fox with the condition they would spin off the regional sports network portfolio to a new company. Sinclair Broadcast Group brought the RSNs and ran them under its subsidiary the Diamond Sports Group, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March.
Whether that initial Illitch move was legitimate or posturing as part of negotiating a new TV rights deal with new owners is unclear, though the Illitch family did sign a new TV rights deal with Bally as recently as 2021. The terms of that deal were thought to be in excess of $50 million annually.
The Illitches and Gores have been closely linked since Gores brought the Pistons in 2011. If Gores or the Illitches wanted to pick up this project again, I’m sure the other side would be interested.
Ishbia’s move in Arizona means the two franchises’ basketball games will be available to 2.8 million households for free instead of the 800,000 with access to Bally Sports Arizona, Windhorst writes.
“We’re not focusing on money. We’re focusing on winning, success and taking care of fans, taking care of the community,” new team owner Mat Ishbia said. “What happens is you always end up making money. It always works out.
“We’re going to have more fans than ever before. We’re going to have more people who will have eyeballs on Devin Booker and Deandre [Ayton] and Kevin Durant, Chris [Paul] and cheer the team on. And more people buying merchandise because they’re bigger fans.”
For its part, Diamond Sports Group alleges the move is a breach of contract and violates bankruptcy law. That is disputed by the Suns.
Such a move might get broad support from the league office as it looks to reimagine its connections to fans in a new media landscape. This past season, the NBA cut the cost of NBA League Pass in half to $99 for its most popular plan.
What networks the Suns’ broadcasts would be available is unclear, though a thirst for live viewers that allow networks to charge more for ads would likely appeal to plenty of channels.
The local streaming option is still undefined, unbuilt and without a price point. It could be a way to recoup some money from the youngest set of fans who strictly rely on portable devices to watch games and might find an option to watch games on demand appealing.
What do you think, Pistons fans? Is this something you want to see in Detroit? Do you think the quality of broadcast handled strictly by the team would be of high enough and reliable quality? Would Gores be interested in this move? Could the NBA simply do away with blackout restrictions and handle everything in its League Pass app?