Could Scripps Rescue Sports Teams From Dying RSNs?

  • New sports division talking to a dozen teams among major pro leagues.
  • Scripps entering U.S. sports rights market while RSN’s crumbling.
Brian Lawlor of Scripps Sports
Scripps Sports
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The new Scripps Sports division is riding in like a white knight to the possible rescue of worried MLB, NBA, and NHL teams.

The new unit, headed by veteran TV executive Brian Lawlor, is on the prowl for local and even national sports rights. At the same time, the lucrative regional sports network (RSN) model that worked for decades is crumbling.

Sinclair’s Diamond Sports, for example, is heading for an $8.6 billion bankruptcy that could throw media rights for 42 pro teams at 19 Bally Sports RSN’s up for grabs. Warner Bros. Discovery has also informed multiple teams it wants out of the RSN business.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, parent company E.W. Scripps acquired ION Media from Black Diamond for $2.65 billion. So Lawlor’s unit can offer teams and leagues various options, from the local to national media platforms.  

“I think our timing was perfect to be public about what we can do to help solve people’s problems,” Lawlor told Front Office Sports. “So there’s been a lot of interest. Certainly, in the last two months. And certainly in the last two weeks.”

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Lawlor declined to name teams Scripps involved in discussions. In some cases, concerned teams are reaching out to Scripps, not the other way around.

“There are teams in the NBA that are currently in the last year of their RSN deal and don’t have a solution for next season. So we’re in conversations with some of them,” said Lawlor, who previously led the Cincinnati-based media giant’s local TV division.

“In the last two weeks, some of the leagues are suddenly in contingency mode trying to figure out what happens if Bally stiffs them – and stops production in the next month. So we’ve had quite a few conversations with the leagues and the teams, just helping them identify where we can be a solution for them.”

Scripps has some business advantages that RSNs don’t. It owns 61 local stations in 41 U.S. markets, plus news and entertainment networks like ION. Cord-cutting and cord-shaving are wreaking havoc on cable networks; not local linear network stations.  

Meanwhile, Scripps is also in discussions with senior executives at the league level. 

“We’ve probably had direct conversations with close to a dozen teams – and three or four major leagues,” Lawlor said.

So are the 14 MLB teams currently under contract to Bally’s struggling RSNs among them as a new season approaches?

Lawlor wouldn’t say. 

“We’ve talked to baseball more at the league level than the team level,” he replied.

MLB declined to comment. But sources said baseball is considering “all different options” regarding distribution.

In business negotiations, timing can be everything. 

Right now, the timing seems perfect for Scripps Sports to propose itself as an alternative that’s somewhere between the RSN past and sports’ streaming future.

If teams and leagues want to combine broadcast and direct-to-consumer, then Scripps would be happy to consider options.

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“I think it’s a unique moment in time. I think it was headed this way anyway. Teams and leagues need reach,” Lawlor said. “There’s all this talk about direct-to-consumer, and that’s terrific, and they get to own their data. But at the end of the day, teams and leagues need to be visible to their fans.”

Scripps is no stranger to sports. 

Over the years, its local stations have acquired rights to various pro and college properties, including the NFL, NHL, MLS, NWSL, the Big Sky Conference, and several historically Black colleges and universities. 

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