Andy Larsen: Recent NBA and NHL news should give Jazz fans hope about a return to a fan-first local TV deal

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ryan Smith at the NBA All-Star game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Two of the three closest professional sports teams to Utah have announced television deals that are returns to the good old days of sports broadcasting.

Are the Jazz next?

This week, the Vegas Golden Knights NHL team announced that they reached an agreement with Scripps television to air games in Vegas on over-the-air channel KMCC, which is currently airing ION television programming. They also say they’ll air Vegas Golden Knight games in Utah on a Scripps channel — likely KUPX, usually channel 16 on local TVs.

The team previously broadcast its games on Las Vegas’ AT&T SportsNet channel, but that option ended when AT&T SportsNet announced its intention to cease operations. Like the Jazz, this move put the Golden Knights looking for a new television solution. And in the end, they chose an old-school one: finding a local smaller broadcast station to air their games for free.

The first shoe to drop came last week, when the Phoenix Suns announced that they would take their broadcasts off of regional sports network Bally Sports Arizona next season. Instead, they’re signing a new deal with Gray Television, which owns over-the-air broadcast stations in Phoenix and Tucson among other nationwide markets. (As a side note, the parent company of Bally’s Sports Arizona is suing the Suns about the contract, saying their deal hasn’t expired yet despite their bankruptcy.)

Both AT&T SportsNet and Bally Sports Arizona weren’t available over the air, instead only available to subscribers of bigger cable and satellite packages. They got paid mainly through big-money per-subscriber fees, which may or may not show up on your bill.

Through Gray and Scripps, Suns and Golden Knights games will be available to anyone in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas with just an antenna — as well as being on the bigger, more expensive cable and satellite packages.

Both teams also announced that they were developing streaming solutions for those who wanted to watch games online as well. The Golden Knights said they and Scripps would collaborate on a streaming option, while the Suns said they’d work with Kiswe, a video technology start-up, to create their streaming service.

The result seems like it will be terrific for fans. While Golden Knights and Suns games have been limited to a shrinking number of big-package subscribers, now they’ll be available to nearly anyone, no matter how they watch TV.

The tradeoff is that these teams will make less money. But interestingly, their ownership has said they don’t care.

“I paid $4 billion to be the steward of the team,” new Suns owner Mat Ishbia told the Washington Post. “Money always follows more fans. The monetization is not the number one focus. The first focus is reach.”

That’s, frankly, a shocking statement from the owner of an NBA team. These teams have fought tooth-and-nail to extend these contracts with regional sports networks because they’ve been incredibly profitable. Teams have earned anywhere from $20 million to $150 million per year on these deals. Understandably, they were loathe to give that up, even in the face of dwindling real viewership. The move away from the model may well be due to limited options rather than pure-hearted kindness.

Now, we still have to see if the trend continues beyond just the one team in each league. But without regional sports networks bidding on broadcast rights, these franchises may not have any other option.

Where does this leave the Jazz?

Well, they too can’t be on the soon-defunct AT&T SportsNet. The team’s contract is done. The Jazz still haven’t announced their replacement TV plans for next season. I asked Jazz president Jim Olson for a timeline on when they might expect an announcement, and he declined to give me one.

The obvious option is KJZZ: the former over-the-air home for Jazz games before the regional sports network era began. The Miller family sold that station to Sinclair in 2016, though — and Sinclair’s regional sports network arm, Diamond, just declared bankruptcy. It’s interesting that Scripps is interested in broadcasting games in Las Vegas, and they own a number of broadcast stations in Utah as well. KSL currently has radio rights for Jazz and RSL games, and you wonder if they’d be interested in acquiring TV rights for Jazz games, too.

But the Suns and Golden Knights have set a new bar for what fans can reasonably expect from their franchises in terms of access to games, and what the Jazz end up doing should strive to reach that standard.