How Sinclair Pulled Off the Gargantuan Bally Sports Networks Rebrand Amid the Pandemic
19 former Fox RSNs across the country relanch under Bally Sports brand tomorrow
After 2½ decades, Fox Sports Regional Networks is set to ride off into the sunset, and the era of Bally Sports networks will begin.
On Wednesday, 19 of the 21 regional sports networks that Sinclair Broadcast Group acquired in 2019 (the two more-localized brands, Fox Sports Tennessee and Fox Sports Carolinas, will transition to Bally Sports South) will relaunch as Bally Sports networks, in one of the largest rebrand projects in the history of sports media.
Although Sinclair’s RSN teams have been gearing up for the rebrand project for more than a year, the partnership with Bally’s wasn’t finalized until January. As result, the past two months have been a whirlwind of activity to rebrand studios across the country, as well as to build a new graphics package, music library, and overall on-air look from scratch.
“It has been 25 years since the [Fox Sports] RSNs started out, and this is the first major rebrand,” notes Laura Mickelson, VP, production, Bally Sports Networks. “It’s massive in scope across the board. It’s not like just remodeling your own home; it’s like remodeling an entire neighborhood that is spread across the country — all with different dimensions, sizes, and needs.”
In all, Mickelson and her team have updated eight studios and launched two brand-new studios, built a whopping 64 desks based on five discrete desk designs, and created 500+ pieces of artwork. Meanwhile, the graphics team — led by VP, Creative Services, Brad Roe — has created 2,800+ network/team/player animation graphics, 120 templates that generate thousands of in-game graphics and statistics, and 3,000+ new sponsorship graphics.
“It has been a true team effort,” notes Bally Sports EVP Michael Connelly. “This is the biggest rebrand I have ever seen in my years in the business, and we had to do it in the middle of a pandemic. We made a few key [hires] and brought in some amazing people, who have stepped up and worked hard. We also relied heavily on the regions themselves. Most of our GMs and EPs have been around for a while so they have a lot of experience and knowledge. We leveraged that, and all came together to get this done.”
The Sets: Bringing the Bally Brand to the Studio
Although Mickelson and her team may not have known what the actual brand would be, they knew a rebrand was coming, from the minute Sinclair acquired the RSNs from Disney (via 21st Century Fox). More than a year ago, she began assessing which physical elements would need to be rebranded at each RSN, planning to visit each region individually for site surveys beginning in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit.
“Usually, in these situations,” she explains, “we travel to every region and do production-site surveys to intensively measure everything and work with all the production teams. But, in this case, I knew this wasn’t going to be a possibility. So there were extensive Zoom meetings, paperwork, and lots of cooperation from each individual region. We worked closely with production, operations, and engineering people to pre-assess what they already had in place and what they needed.”
The process of designing new sets began with Fox Sports Midwest (St. Louis) and Fox Sports Sun (Tampa, FL), which were set to build new studio facilities. Sinclair teamed up with Big Creative to design and Scenic Solutions to construct the new sets, which became the basis for revamped studios in other regions.
“[Midwest] was our first transition from the previous smoky, dark, navy look to the new look,” says Mickelson. “In Tampa, we installed a large brand-new set with a huge, 70-ft. LED screen, a touchscreen, and a demo area. Those two sets set the tone for us.”
Once news arrived in January that the RSNs would carry the iconic Bally brand, the studio-design team officially shifted from pre-planning mode to building mode. Each RSN required not only a new studio (including a desk, scenics, and displays) at its home facility but also new remote sets at its teams’ arenas and ballparks.
“When we became aware that it was going to be the iconic Bally name,” says Mickelson, “we kicked the rebrand into high gear under the direction of [SVP, Marketing and Promotions] Dana Feldman and started to implement what these products would be like. But, at that point, we had already pre-assessed each regional studio, remote set, and all the products. So we had a pretty good handle on the scope of the project before we even knew what our new name would be.”
A new signature desk has been deployed in the studios and larger remote sets across all the regions. The desks are either 10- or 8-ft.-wide circular desks with a ribbed flex LED panel in the front screen. Sinclair also designed a smaller S-and-S (sit-and-stand) desk, which has been rolled out for all regions, featuring a Rhino Linings top and built-in LED monitor. The carbon-fiber, lightweight S-and-S desks are very durable and provide RSN on-air talent with plenty of flexibility.
“It’s adjustable,” Mickelson points out, “so an NBA analyst who is 6 ft. 6 and a shorter play-by-play talent can sit next to each other and be at level height on camera. It also provides more durability, which is huge because, especially during COVID, you may not be producing from your traditional location, so you may have to move quickly.”
Mickelson’s team worked closely with Big Creative to develop the look, which Mickelson describes as “minimalistic, clean, white, fresh, dynamic, and really of the times. I think it’s going to be unlike any other sports [network] look that you’ve seen before.”
Throughout February and March, sets at all 19 RSNs were revamped one by one on a highly condensed schedule. With projects spanning the continental U.S., Sinclair relied on a variety of national and local vendors for manufacturing and installation, including Filmwerks, IDF Studio Scenery, and Scenic Solutions.
“One of the most unique things was that, because the project was so massive and because of COVID, we couldn’t just use one vendor and travel everywhere,” says Mickelson. “We had to work with multiple vendors, who had to be willing to cooperate with each other like they may not on a normal basis in making the same products. There had to be synergy between all the vendors to get this done.”
Graphics and Music: New Look and Sound With an Iconic Brand
When the RSNs departed Fox Sports, they lost the support of the mothership’s graphics- design and music departments. Immediately after the transition to Sinclair ownership, Connelly let executive producers at all the RSNs know that he was beginning to build a graphics and music team from scratch to support them.
“That was the main focus right off the bat — to get graphics, music, and studio design in a good place — because I knew we were going to lose those from Fox,” says Connelly. “Once we had those key employees in place, I knew they could build their own department with designers, producers, equipment, engineers, a help desk, and anything else we needed.”
Connelly brought in Roe to head Creative Services, with WGN America veteran Nelly Sarkissian as lead art director spearheading graphics design. Former Fox Sports VP, Music, Janine Kerr fills the same role at Sinclair.
While this was taking place, Marquee Sports Network in Chicago (co-owned by Sinclair and the Cubs) was preparing to launch and needed a graphics package and music library. Connelly worked with Marquee GM Michael McCarthy to bring in |drive| studio to build its on-air Vizrt graphics package, which ended up setting the stage for what would become the Bally Sports graphical look.
|drive| built the Bally Sports insert- graphics package before Bally’s even came aboard, and the design firm also produced a series of sample animations to prepare for the announcement of the new brand.
“Corporate was still negotiating deals for the [branding] partnership,” says Connelly, “but that actually helped us because it gave us time to get the graphics and music departments in place. By the time [Bally] came aboard, we already had the insert package and a bunch of sample animations that were made knowing that the name would probably be some kind of betting or gaming company. We had a bunch of designs in place, and, once they finalized the partnership, we were able to modify it and design an entire look.”
Even though Sarkissian and her design team had been working on creating a new look for more than six months, their hands were tied until the Bally’s deal was official. Once the agreement was finalized, the package went into production at warp speed.
“It’s like cooking a Thanksgiving meal: we got everything prepped ahead of time, and then, once we knew what the main dish would be, we just started cooking,” says Connelly. “We already had everything in place, so, once we got the name, it was just a matter of going 24/7 to build out all the elements as fast as we could.”
In addition to the new Bally Sports brand, the biggest graphical change that viewers are likely to notice is the revamped scorebug. The new scorebug graphic joins the ticker at the bottom of the screen, freeing real estate for viewers to see the game. In addition, a wider ticker at the bottom of the screen provides space for Bally Sports to implement sports-betting information when possible since Sinclair has said betting will be a major initiative for the RSNs moving forward.
“To me, the ticker was great 10 years ago but is a waste of space now since everyone has a [smartphone] in their hand and can check scores that way,” says Connelly. “But it’s still a great space for information. We actually combined the ticker and the scorebug. Now we have an area for data on the right side of the screen next to the scorebug, which is where everybody’s eyes are always drawn.
“We designed it that way with [betting] in mind,” he continues, “so that we could eventually insert propositions or betting lines or predictive gaming [elements] easily. Also, by moving everything down, we’ve created more room on the screen for action. You’ll see more of the picture, and you’ll have a better experience watching the game.”
The Big Day Is Here: Bally Sports Rebrand Goes Live
Although a handful of Sinclair RSNs have already gone live with the new Bally look, March 31 will mark the official relaunch of the networks (along with the arrival of the Bally Sports app). The next day, for Major League Baseball Opening Day, the RSNs are partnering with Sinclair digital sports platform Sinclair to produce a Bally Sports Big Opening Day whip-around show.
Beginning at 11 a.m. ET, the national show will leverage the Bally Sports regional networks to offer fans a live, whip-around–style MLB Opening Day broadcast that will also feature NHL, NBA, and pro-tennis updates and highlights. Hosted by Stadium’s Michael Kim, Bally Sports SoCal’s Kristina Pink and Bally Sports Southeast’s Eric Collins, Bally Sports Big Opening Day will originate from Stadium’s studio in Chicago and air across all 19 Bally Sports regional networks.
“We knew we needed something big for Opening Day to make the [Bally Sports] launch feel special,” says Connelly. “We felt like a whip-around show that goes to different teams we cover would be a great way to do that. Really, it’s about selling the Bally Sports brand, showcasing the new look, and telling people what we’re all about. We’re just excited to jump out of the gate.”