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It'll be free to watch the Vegas Golden Knights on TV next season. Here's how it happened and why it's important in the new RSN landscape
As the hockey TV space is changing, the Stanley Cup champions may already be ahead of the curve.
The Vegas Golden Knights first championship was all about risk-assessment and bold moves.
Vegas didn’t win the Stanley Cup in 2023 because of the expansion draft in 2017. The Golden Knights won a title because the team was willing to use first-round picks as trade assets, aggressively pursue top talent, and live with the consequences of being a cap-strapped team in the regular season.
A banner will hang, the Stanley Cup will have “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS” inscribed on it and the party will continue on the Vegas strip this weekend.
And next season, when fans want to watch the reigning champs on TV, they’ll be able to do it for free as part of a new TV deal with Scripps Sports which includes over-the-air broadcasting in addition to be included in pay-TV bundles.
It’s a potentially precedent building deal for other professional sports teams as the current regional sports network (RSN) model is crumbling.
The Bally Sports-branded networks, owned by Diamond Sinclair, have been dealing with bankruptcy. In MLB, the San Diego Padres had to make a switch mid-season to games being produced by the league. In the NBA the Phoenix Suns tried to leave Bally, but had that blocked in court. And in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings parted ways with one of the best play-by-play voices in the league, Alex Faust, because they don’t have TV partner next season after their deal expired with Bally Sports West.
So how did Vegas stick the landing?
The Golden Knights through this season and the first-round of the playoffs, were still having games aired by AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountains. Back in January Warner Media, which owns AT&T SportsNet Rock Mountains, informed the Golden Knights they were planning to get out of the RSN business.
“They basically told us, ‘Hey we are getting out, we are going to file Chapter 7 (bankruptcy) and before we can go through that process, if you are interested, you can have the rights back,’” Golden Knights team president and CEO Kerry Bubolz said. “Once we got through the initial disappointment, it wasn’t a surprise. Our part of the pie was profitable, but we were lumped in with two other organizations and it was a deficit situation financially (for Warner Media).”
Bubolz said the Golden Knights decided and worked with Warner Media to maintain the partnership through the end of the 2022-23 season, he called it having a clean exit with the current rights holder, while working on a new TV deal for the 2023-24 season with another partner.
“They honored their financial obligations to us, we came out clean,” Bubolz said. “It allowed us to be in the best position for a new partnership.”
The Golden Knights worked with a division of CAA to put together the “Golden Knights Story,” a pitch that included financial factors, like ratings and economic impact, while also building a presentation that told the story of the franchise, how ingrained it was in the Vegas community, and how it was expanding to be a national brand.
Vegas spoke with “at least a handful” of potential TV providers. Scripps Sports stood out for a couple reasons according to Bubolz, economics were important, but creating a wider distribution really set Scripps apart from some other potential partners.
The Golden Knights TV market contains Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and a small portion of eastern California.
“They showed us a plan on how they could distribute in our outer market and we got pretty excited about it,” Bubolz said. “We also had some confidence in them from what they did in local market because we’ve worked with them on their local station, KTNV, for preseason games before.”
Bubolz said he understands Vegas is lucky in how this played out, he pointed to the situation with the Suns and the court-filing, where a team wanted to make a move and find a new partner, but because of Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings had things blocked.
The Golden Knights and the NHL are still working on streaming solutions in the market, those aren’t part of the Scripps deal, but Bubolz said that will likely be discussed more after the Stanley Cup celebrations. Plus, it’ll be another revenue stream for Vegas once it is hammered out.
From a pure TV perspective, the Golden Knights are going to be able to bring in more viewers. Bubolz said in the prior deal only about one third of the core market had access to AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountains and in some of the outer market, like Salt Lake City and Reno, less than 10 percent of the market had easy access to Golden Knights games.
“If you are a VGK fan in Salt Lake, now you can easily follow the team,” Bubolz said. “That’s important.”
(Side note: Bubolz particular singling out Salt Lake City is very interesting considering the current interest in bringing an NHL team there. Not that Vegas would stop a team from going to Salt Lake City, but it is a reminder that if a team were to move there, some financial restitution would have to be made up for taking part of the Vegas TV market. Or… and this is me just thinking out loud, Vegas could be given Arizona as part of its market in the trade.)
The Golden Knights are essentially making it much easier to answer the question, “How do I find the Golden Knights hockey game on TV?” in an era when because of streaming and TV rights disputes, it’s never been harder to find a simple solution to watch most games.
It’s also a change in how Vegas looks at RSNs. When the team came into the league as an expansion franchise, the value of the RSN TV deal was one of the most important financial blocks for a franchise. That equation has changed for many teams (better or worse depending on the market) and Bubolz said this type of deal with free-over-air broadcasting was considered in 2017, but wasn’t possible at the time.
“There’s economics and then there’s distribution and then there’s economics that that come from distribution,” Bubolz said. “At that time (in 2017) the economics of the regional sports model just made more sense and we didn’t know what these other parts of our business would look like, we hadn’t even played a game yet.”
Vegas looks at the new deal as a chance to make further pushes into uniting its outer markets. Bubolz mentioned “feeding the beast” of fandom in Boise, across Montana, and again mentioned Salt Lake City where the team has hosted preseason games before and they were “primarily Golden Knights fans.”
AHL business booming
Closer to home, in the Vegas core market, Las Vegas has proven itself as a hockey town. And I don’t say that because of the success on the ice, rather the fact that the NHL franchise was able to support and build a viable AHL business within the same market.
While every NHL GM would want their AHL team in the same town, especially in the salary cap era, from a business point of view it doesn’t always work. The Florida Panthers, for example, don’t want an AHL team too close because they don’t want to dilute the hockey fanbase or their product. The Carolina Hurricanes, in part, split ways with the Charlotte Checkers because they didn’t feel a need to elevate a hockey business rival in the same state.
George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon wanted to bring an AHL team to the Vegas area sooner, but Bubolz said as the business mind he and Bill Foley needed to see proof of life first, that they wouldn’t be diluting the NHL product or competing against themselves.
“When George had approached me about getting our AHL team here, we had already been thinking about some of those other markets, maybe Reno or Salt Lake, but my initial thought was I got why it made sense from a development standpoint, but I didn’t know if it there was truly a market for the product,” Bubolz said. “What I didn’t want to do was look at our owner and say, ‘looks like we diluted our own product.’”
Bubolz said Vegas did it’s research, it tracked demographics and took a deeper dive before green lighting the plan to buy the San Antonio Rampage and re-locate them to nearby Henderson, the Silver Knights, instead of going to Reno or Salt Lake City.
Vegas learned that there was a community in Henderson of more than 315,000 people that wanted to be its own brand, that the demographic was larger than most other AHL cities. It also became the cost-effective introduction to hockey for fans that couldn’t afford NHL season tickets, while also serving as an eastern outpost in the valley while the NHL practice facility in Summerlin served as a western outpost.
For their first two seasons in the AHL, the Henderson Silver Knights were the top-revenue team in the AHL by both ticketing and sponsorships. This season they were second after getting surpassed by the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Seattle Kraken affiliate currently in the Calder Cup Final.
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