SVG Sit-Down: Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley on ATSC 3.0, HDR Sports, Bally Sports+ DTC Streaming, and the Future of the RSN Business
ATSC’s low latency and synchronicity promise an enhanced sports-viewing experience
It’s a busy time for Sinclair Broadcast Group when it comes to live sports. Not only is the company set to launch the Bally Sports+ DTC streaming service later this year, but it has also announced plans to offer HDR content for its Bally Sports Regional Sports Networks beginning in the third quarter.
Sinclair President/CEO Chris Ripley was on hand at last month’s NAB 2022, addressing the company’s plans for the future of ATSC 3.0 NextGen broadcasting, among other topics. During the show, he sat down with SVG and provided an update on the Bally Sports+ launch and discussed how ATSC 3.0 will impact the sports-viewing experience, why HDR is key to Bally Sports’ future roadmap, how he sees betting and gamification exploding in the coming years, and the growth of Tennis Channel since Sinclair acquired it in 2016.
How do you see the rollout of ATSC 3.0 potentially impacting the sports-viewing experience for fans in the future?
First, the rollout of more resolution — HDR and higher pixel counts — will definitely have a big impact for sports broadcasts. Sports are core to the [over-the-air] broadcast offering — especially the NFL, playoff sports, and other [high-profile] events – so that is certainly going to have a major impact.
The less talked-about but just as important impact [of ATSC 3.0] is low latency and synchronicity. Obviously, it’s not a good consumer experience when one device is on one frame and another device is on another frame. Or if there is 40 seconds of delay on the stream, which is a very common delay in streaming. ATSC 3.0 is able to shrink that latency down to sub 10 seconds, and it’s able to provide synchronicity across all devices — whether it’s streaming or broadcast — so that everything’s on the same frame.
That is going make a difference in the consumer experience, especially as it relates to sports betting and gaming. And that’s what we’re really excited about. We have a big push around gamification. We’re working on watch-and-play experiences with our partners at Bally’s, where you’ll be able to watch and play on one screen and interact [with the broadcast]. Right now, that [type of experience] is based on traditional streaming, but we’re working to figure out how to actually replace the streaming component with ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV to speed up that latency and enable synchronicity. That’s going to make the watch-and-play experience much better.
Can you provide an update on your plans to launch a Bally Sports direct-to-consumer streaming service?
We’re obviously very excited about the upcoming launch of our Bally Sports+ direct-to-consumer [streaming service]. In some ways, these three years [since acquiring the Fox Sports RSNs] have been all about getting to this point. Almost from day one, we have been working on this launch: clearing the way with the MVPs, which was no small task, building the backend technology, and getting the rights from the leagues. It has been a long process, but we’re finally about to launch, and we couldn’t be more excited about that. Getting that going is going to be a really big milestone for us.
We are soft-launching this quarter and then plan to fully launch in Q3. We’ll be coming out with more specific dates soon.
Do you expect media rights for more pro teams to be added to the streaming service prior to its full launch?
The last set of rights we added in January were pretty significant. There could be additional rights between now and [the launch]. That’s an active discussion, so we can’t say one way or the other, but we will be launching, regardless. And we think, within the next 12 months, we will have all the rest of the rights we need.
What was behind Sinclair’s decision to begin offering HDR content for Bally Sports RSNs beginning later this year? And how does that move to HDR factor into Sinclair’s overall strategy?
Sports has always been at the forefront in terms of resolution and picture quality. And we think it’s important to continue to push that envelope. HDR, specifically, gives you much greater depth and makes you actually feel like you’re in the building and watching it live much more than just adding more pixels. We think it’s important to continue to move that ball forward not only on behalf of our own business but also on behalf of our league and team partners. The more entertaining and visually exciting we can make our product, the better.
In terms of how it fits into our broader plans, we believe adding interactivity around [the broadcast] in terms of gamification is the next frontier. But you have to have a fundamentally state-of-the art, best-in-class picture to go along with that. This is a key step in that evolution.
It will definitely be a boost for viewers, but, obviously, upgrading all your regional sports facilities will also be costly. Why did it make sense from a return-on-investment perspective?
We absolutely believe it is worth [the investment]. Not every upgrade pencils out on a spreadsheet. I’m a finance guy, so it’s not easy for me to say that. But you have to continue to innovate, and you have to continue to make your product best in class. And you have to have faith that, if you do that, you’ll get rewarded for it in the long term.
How do you see Bally Sports’ plans around betting growing in the next couple of years? Will we see more gamification, betting-focused programming, and “BetCasts” on your RSNs?
This is going to be an exciting couple of years coming up for Bally’s [Corp.]. They just finished integrating Gamesys Group, which is a major operation out of Europe. They brought all that technology over from Europe for their new app that’s launching in a few markets as we speak. This is the first time that they are coming out with really best-in-class app technology. They have amazing [physical] footprint with lots of casinos, and they have the branding deal with us, but the missing piece has always been their app offering for sports betting. And so that’s coming out, and we’re really excited about that.
As they get more penetration in these markets, you’re going to see more programming — on our [networks] as well as others. For instance, they own AVP Beach Volleyball, so they are going to start doing interesting things around watch-and-play experiences because they actually control the league. And they’re already iterating on various watch-and-play experiences on our core sports like hockey, basketball, and baseball. Definitely a lot more to come on that.
How has the launch of the new Tennis Channel facility gone in Los Angeles, and how do you see that part of the business evolving?
We’re really excited about Tennis Channel right now. The new building is amazing and has state-of-the-art studios to handle our productions. Unfortunately, a lot of our people haven’t been able to [use it] due to COVID, but our production team is all there, and they are loving it.
Tennis Channel has been an amazing success story. When we bought it, it had about 30 million homes, and we have since doubled its distribution to about 60 million homes. We also added Tennis.com and Tennis magazine. Today, it is the number-one brand for tennis and tennis lifestyle in the U.S.
Now [we’re focused on] how to take that success in the U.S. and go global. Tennis Channel is now in eight countries — mostly in Europe but also in India. We’re also launching it over the top with FAST channels and SVOD and bringing its digital assets into those markets, too. We just acquired our first live rights in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Netherlands with the WTA. And we’ll continue to look to add live rights and grow the channel just as we have in the U.S.
We’re excited about the opportunities for Tennis Channel around interactive gaming. It is the second-most bet-on sport in the world, after all, and I think it’s going to be bet on much more in the U.S. as the market develops for online sports betting. Watch-and-play is a big element of what we’re working on for Tennis Channel. We’re going to start adding proprietary video analytics to our portfolio so that we can analyze our video and get proprietary data sets about what’s going on. And those data sets could also become bettable.
Editor’s note: This interview took place prior to Sinclair’s Q1 earnings call on May 4 and has been edited for length and clarity.