If Comcast decides to sell regional sports networks, these buyers make the most sense

Key Points
  • NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, is reportedly considering selling its regional sports networks, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • If it does, potential buyers like private investment firms and sports owners could benefit.
Baseball gloves waiting for action above the NBC Sports Philadelphia logo before the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies on April 11, 2018 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia PA.
Gavin Baker | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

Give legendary sports owner Ed Snider credit – he was one of the first to see the business opportunity around regional sports networks.

Snider combined a regional sports network and movie channel in 1976 when he launched PRISM. If you're a longtime Philadelphian, you remember the network well. PRISM was an extra cable charge. The channel aired the National Hockey League's Flyers franchise and the National Basketball Association's 76ers.

Major League Baseball's Phillies games were also shown on the network, which eventually turned into NBC Sports Philadelphia, one of the few RSNs operated by NBCUniversal parent company, Comcast.

"To me, Ed Snider is definitely in the top 10 of all-time, pure sports visionaries," said former sports executive Andy Dolich. "Did he see everything 100 percent? Probably not. But he saw the buildings. He saw the teams. He saw the fanbases, especially in Philadelphia, and he saw the crazy DNA that fans have for the teams. And he was able to organize it in a strategic fashion."

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported Comcast is exploring selling its stakes and exiting the RSN business, which it got into with the help of Snider, the former chairman of Comcast-Spectator. The speculation shouldn't be too much a surprise as cord-cutting continues, and RSNs rely on cable subscribers. AT&T has been trying to sell its stash of RSN's, too.

Dolich said RSNs were once "the best sports microscopes – meaning, you could find out everything, tune in during the day and get information about the local franchise. Now it's flipped and becoming a telescope where fans want to see the big picture."

"They don't need the small picture," he added. "It's who won, who lost, and seeing highlights of Steph Curry going for 49 points. That's all they care about. All the other stuff, they can get in many different forms on their phone, laptop, iPad, etc."

If NBCUniversal decides to auction some of its RSNs, a few names and companies are circulating as intriguing buyers in the sports business world. And they include sports owners who could expand what Snider helped build.

Owning the railroad tracks

Back in 1976, Snider bet local fanbases would pay to watch teams. He died in 2016, but not before he and Comcast won that bet. Fans no longer need to rely solely on RSNs to reach sports leagues, now that there are lots of streaming options.

Though the WSJ report noted that sports owners have historically been uninterested in owning RSNs, that could change. The RSN traditionists suggest the model isn't dead, but in need of innovation.

Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris is an interesting name who's linked to the NBC Sports Philly operation. To those familiar with his business dealings, Harris likes to explore and take risks. NBC Sports Philly could make perfect sense.

He owns the 76ers, which he purchased from Comcast-Spectator in 2011, and though separate from his personal balance sheet, Apollo purchased Verizon properties earlier this month, including Yahoo, for $5 billion.

Whether Comcast sells the property is the question. When reached on Tuesday, an NBC affiliate stations spokesperson declined to comment on the WSJ report but said the company is in a strong position with profitable RSNs.

In Washington, Ted Leonsis, the Wizards and Capitals owner, set up a digital RSN in the Monumental Sports Network and appears well-positioned for the future with sports gambling and esports. Since he already has a 30% stake in the NBC Sports Washington property, he aligns as a suitor to own the network outright.

Dolich suggested team owners should look to buy RSN properties to prepare for what's ahead, like virtual reality and augmented reality. He linked it to owning the railroad tracks.

"If you look at the billionaires of railroads 100 years ago, what did they control? They controlled the railroad tracks," Dolich said. "So in this circumstance, what do the owners of a sports team have? They have the property, the athletes and the games.

"Fans want control," Dolich added. "They want to be in the game. And how many ways can you follow your team? It's hundreds. Owners, they can set the kind of tracks they want for people to view the game."

Added Octagon media executive Dan Cohen: "You get synergy between the team and content production and engagement with fans. If you're able to merge the data you have on people that come to the arena with your viewership audience, that's some really strong currency to trade on. There is value in that."

RedBird Capital could consider Boston RSN

Investment firm RedBird Capital has a minority stake in Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the ownership group of the Red Sox and Liverpool FC. RedBird also has a stake in the media sector as an investor of YES Network, the RSN that airs Yankees games.

RedBird could explore buying NBC Sports Boston, consolidating and transforming the station to align with New England Sports Network (NESN), which already airs Red Sox and Bruins games.

"It's a very strong market with a strong fanbase and it's profitable," Cohen said of the Boston RSN.

RedBird declined to comment on the matter when reached by CNBC on Tuesday.

The headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
Getty Images

Is Sinclair an option?

Sinclair made a massive bet on RSNs when it purchased 21 networks from Disney in 2019 for $10.6 billion, making it the largest RSN provider. Media pundits are still unsure about the move, and Sinclair needed to write down over $4 billion in debt associated with the acquisition.

In March, Sinclair officially rebranded the networks to Bally Sports under a deal with Bally's Corporation. That could alienate marketing dollars from rival sports betting firms, which are still spending wildly to grow brands.

But the company is positioned well to capitalize on sports wagering and sources, who wish to remain anonymous due to ongoing talks, say it's close to renewing the NBA's and NHL's local streaming rights, which will benefit their direct-to-consumer streaming model via the Bally Sports app. 

Sinclair has a $2.5 billion market capitalization and can't afford to purchase the entire fleet of NBC RSNs. And anti-trust concerns, which forced Disney to unload the properties, would arise, too. But gaining a stake in one more RSN market wouldn't hurt.

"It could make sense," Lee Berke of LHB Sports, a sports media consultancy firm, said. "There may be specific markets that are adjunct to markets they already have and increase their national footprint."

In this photo illustration a Amazon Prime Video logo displayed on a smartphone.
Mateusz Slodkowski | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

Keeping an eye on Amazon

In the San Francisco Bay Area, another profitable NBC RSN has rights to the Golden State Warriors, Giants, Oakland A's and 49ers shoulder programming. Cohen mentioned tech giant Amazon as a perfect suitor should NBC sell the property.

"If I'm Amazon and getting a taste of the RSN fruit with YES Network, my next move would be to go make a splash in Silicon Valley," Cohen said. "They'd have Steph Curry for a few more years, and the Giants, which has a good fanbase. It's a good market."

It's down, but the RSN business isn't dead yet, and if NBC exits, there should be buyers willing to invest and experiment, especially with top sports markets available.

"As far out as you can see in the future, RSNs will still be a part of the game," said former Turner Sports president Dr. Harvey Schiller. "It's all about the content they provide to the viewer. Regionals have to come up with other things they can offer as part of it, and it's probably going to be gambling and gaming," he added. "If they align that with their product – that's the future."

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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