Utah Jazz will air games free, sell streaming packages to fans next season

Here’s what the team’s new TV deal means for Jazz fans.

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

The day Utah Jazz fans have anticipated for years is finally here.

The Jazz announced Tuesday morning that they will air games on KJZZ-TV, starting in the upcoming 2023-24 season. The over-the-air station owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group — channel 14 on most dials — will broadcast all non-nationally televised Jazz games for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, the team will establish a new media arm called SEG Media (the first three letters stand for Smith Entertainment Group, after team owner Ryan Smith). SEG Media will sell subscriptions to a direct-to-consumer streaming service for fans to watch games over the internet, which also promises to deliver “unprecedented access” to the team with “behind-the-scenes” footage.

The move ends a tumultuous 15-year era of Jazz game broadcasting, with declining numbers of fans able to watch games under the model of cable-based regional sports networks. Instead, the move will open up games to a wider audience of Utahns.

What’s new for Jazz fans?

Under the new deal, the Jazz have “granted” Sinclair Broadcasting the rights to air Jazz games in the market — though financial terms of the deal were not released. Sinclair will air games on KJZZ, and can even choose to air selected games on its main station KUTV. The team also says that KUTV will also bring “significant coverage” of the team on its station, produced by either Sinclair or SEG Media, throughout the year.

No length of the contract was announced, but Smith said, “It’s not a super long-term deal, but with the flexibility, it’s probably much more of a partnership than a deal. ... With KJZZ, if we’re good partners, we’ll keep going, and if we’re not good partners with each other, we won’t.”

The deal has been approved by the NBA.

The new streaming service the team plans to offer beginning in October also speaks to the desire for the team to reach more fans, especially younger fans without traditional television capabilities.

While details on the service are scarce — Smith isn’t releasing the cost of the platform, for example — the release says that they plan to offer a paid subscription service to “deliver” every Jazz game to fans via direct-to-consumer streaming platform.

“What we want to do is create one experience where you go to UtahJazz.com, or with the app, and you can just watch it right there,” Smith said. “You’re not going somewhere else. It’s just right there.” Also unknown are what devices such an app might be available on. The team says they will release details throughout the summer on their streaming plans.

Similar direct-to-consumer streaming services, from regional sports networks and teams alike, charge $15 to $30 monthly for people to watch their team’s games locally online.

In addition, SEG Media hopes to offer other content through the streaming service, giving “unprecedented access to the team, front office, and corporate management via exclusive behind-the-scenes footage” according to the company’s press release. The Jazz weren’t previously thrilled with the lack of additional Jazz-related content available on AT&T SportsNet under the old deal. Other RSNs had complementary team-related programming outside of game windows on a regular basis, but AT&T SportsNet rarely did.

The effort is a little reminiscent of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Grind City Media brand launched in 2016, which saw numerous content creators hired in a separate entity to cover the team and city — though we’ll see if SEG Media follows through with Grind City Media’s large ambition.

“Our players work too hard and are too much fun to watch for us to be OK with any fan missing the action. No one has closer proximity to our team than we do, and SEG Media will help Jazz fans experience our organization in a way that has never been possible before, on more channels than ever before,” Smith said in a statement.

Regardless of the changes elsewhere, we know some old faces will remain in place. Longtime Jazz play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack will still run the main show, the Jazz announced, with Thurl Bailey and Holly Rowe continuing to appear as color commentators. Michael Smith and Alema Harrington will continue to host the pre-game and post-game segments next season as well.

A changing media landscape

Why this move now? Essentially, the regional sports network landscape around the nation had completely fallen apart.

The networks failed due to a changing marketplace of TV consumers. As more and more cable and satellite subscribers “cut the cord” to sign up with new streaming services, regional sports networks saw huge slashes in the amount of income they received. While they tried to make it up with increased per-subscriber fees, this only triggered major carriers, like Dish, to cut the stations entirely.

“When we first took over stewardship of the team, (just) 39% of Utah households had the ability to watch Jazz games,” Smith, the Jazz owner, said.

(Kim Raff | Tribune file photo) When Craig Bolerjack succeeded Hot Rod Hundley in 2005 as the play-by-play guy for Jazz telecasts, it marked a generational shift of sorts. Not just from the folksy, hyper-kinetic Hundley to the smooth, professional Bolerjack, but from one basketball generation to another. It was sort of a changing of the guard. April 21, 2012.

The loudest tree to fall was Diamond Sports Group, ironically also owned by Sinclair Broadcasting. For years, there were rumors of their financial difficulties and the group finally went bankrupt this year. That company aired games of 42 NBA, MLB, and NHL franchises on 19 different “Bally” regional sports networks. Other owners of RSNs, like Comcast, looked to sell them off as well.

Most importantly for the Jazz, the local AT&T SportsNet station — the several mergers and acquisitions removed step-child of the Fox Sports Network the team originally signed the 2009 deal with — was shuttered in February. Parent company Warner Brothers’ Discovery decided to exit the business, telling teams that they didn’t have enough money to pay rights fees any longer.

The Jazz had previously held on to AT&T SportsNet with one-year contracts in the years since 2021, hoping for new bidders to emerge. In particular, the team hoped that one of the big-five FAANG tech companies — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google — would seek an interest in local sports programming, and perhaps continue the world of high-dollar local sports TV rights.

That clearly wasn’t happening, though. As a result, the Jazz had only limited bidders for the rights over the past three seasons.

It’s a problem that essentially every MLB, NHL, and NBA team is facing. In the last three months, two nearby teams have made similar moves to what the Jazz announced Tuesday. The Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, also an AT&T SportsNet orphan, gave their broadcast rights to local TV station KMCC, a Scripps station. The Phoenix Suns made a similar deal with local stations KTVK, KPHA, and KPHE — though a bankruptcy judge representing Diamond Sports blocked the deal for now in May.

The downside of the changing landscape is the paltry revenue fees the teams will receive for now under these over-the-air broadcasting deals. The upside is opening games up to a much larger audience of fans than the regional sports network model.

“This new approach is one of the most important investments we have made since purchasing the team, because it allows us to deliver Utah Jazz games to all 3.3 million plus Utahns,” Smith said.

A return to KJZZ

Then-Jazz owner Larry H. Miller first dabbled with television channel KJZZ in similar circumstances 30 years ago, in 1993. Ahead of that season, the team’s broadcasting deal with KSTU (channel 13) ran out, and the station wasn’t interested in renewing thanks to a new broadcasting arrangement with national content producer Fox. As a result, Miller needed a place to make Jazz games accessible to his fanbase.

Enter station KXIV, a small station that first aired classic TV reruns in 1989. Miller bought the station for an estimated $9 million four years later, and put Jazz games, Salt Lake Golden Eagles hockey games, 41 Colorado Rockies games, and Utah high school sports programming on the air. For sixteen years, it would be the local home of the Jazz, growing the fanbase with games accessible by over-the-air antennas.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, on the red carpet before the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

But in 2009, after Miller’s death, the team announced a 12-year agreement with cable channel Fox Sports Net to air their games exclusively for an annual payment of $20 million per year. The rest of the NBA was going in that direction, and the Jazz found the big payments from the cable company too difficult to turn down — the payment would contribute 28% of the Jazz’s player payroll alone that season.

“We went forward from a revenue standpoint and a simplicity standpoint, but we went backwards from an experience standpoint,” Smith said about the 2009 decision.

After KJZZ lost the rights to its star attraction, the Miller family first contracted with KSL-TV to run the station. Then, in 2016, they sold the station for $6.5 million to Sinclair Broadcasting, who would use it as an auxiliary content station for their main programming on KUTV (Channel 2).