Apr 2, 2024 - Business

Why it's still hard to watch Nuggets and Avalanche games in Denver

Illustration of basketball and hockey equipment within a signal error pattern.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

For many local Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche fans, an irony has persisted for nearly five years: It's hard to watch their games from the comfort of your living room.

Why it matters: The extraordinarily long blackout for Comcast's Xfinity — metro Denver's primary cable provider — and DISH Network customers has coincided with each team's rise to the top of its respective league.

The big picture: The providers' disputes with Altitude Sports, (the network that shares the teams' owner, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment) are a symptom of a flailing regional sports broadcasting industry, where network and provider disagreements are becoming more common as cord-cutting persists.

  • And they're limiting the teams' ability to capture a new generation of fans.

What they're saying: "There's not a more painful issue in our entire web of companies than the Altitude issue," said Kroenke Sports vice chairman Josh Kroenke during a press conference last month.

  • "I can't escape it."

State of play: For non-nationally televised games, Denver metro customers must use Altitude, which they can only access via DirecTV, SpectrumTV or Fubo.

  • Coming up with a "creative" solution for everyone else is "priority number one," new Kroenke president of team and media operations Kevin Demoff added.
  • He promised a "fresh look" at the disputes and mentioned a streaming product, a local "over-the-air" broadcast option or a deal with all cable providers as possibilities.

Catch up quick: In August 2019 as contracts were up for renewal, DISH Network, Comcast and DirecTV accused Altitude of demanding "unreasonable" rates that would raise all customers' bills. Altitude said the networks were playing "dumbfounding and disrespectful … hardball tactics."

  • DirecTV and Altitude reached a new agreement within months.
  • But disputes with Comcast and DISH continued, and Altitude sued Comcast for "using its monopoly power in the Denver region to drive Altitude out of business."
  • Mediation efforts failed, and in March 2023 they settled without an agreement to end the blackout.
  • The parties vowed to "remain willing to discuss" future deals, but neither company would confirm to Axios whether discussions remain ongoing.

Comcast spokeswoman Leslie Oliver told Axios: "We've continued to provide Altitude Sports with multiple options … including a subscription option," but said Altitude executives refused the proposals.

  • In a statement, DISH told Axios it, too, has offered Altitude an "a la carte" programming option, "similar to premium channel subscribers. Altitude could set the price, interested customers could subscribe."
  • Both providers said they remain "open" to working with Altitude in a way that makes financial sense.

An Altitude spokesman pointed Axios to the company's March press conference.

Zoom out: The disputes reflect a broken sports broadcasting model, says Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor at Denver's Metropolitan State University. "It has been broken for the last 10 years."

  • Regional networks like Altitude can't make as much money in broadcasting given shrinking viewership, he explained.
  • Indeed, broadcast and cable usage fell to a historic low in the U.S. last year.
  • And providers "don't want to pay the carriage fees for offering the channel because they don't get enough people who want to watch it," Duber-Smith said.

Case in point: Last year's bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group, which owned broadcast rights to 42 teams across the MLB, NHL and NBA including the Colorado Rockies, is another example, he pointed out.

  • The news prompted the MLB to step in and sign agreements with DirecTV to broadcast the San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks and, last week, the Rockies.
  • The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, began a direct-to-consumer streaming service for games ($125 annually), after its separate regional sports network went out of business.

Duber-Smith argues the sports industry should treat regional broadcasting as a "loss-leader," something that operates at a deficit in order to attract customers for other things, like tickets or merchandise.

The bottom line: "There's blame to go all around … and at the end of the day, it's working-class Coloradans who are fans that get the short end of the stick when millionaires and billionaires are fighting," said state Sen. Kyle Mullica, who introduced a 2022 bill to try to force the dispute into state arbitration.

  • "When are the parties going to come together and say, 'We need to treat the fans and our customers with the level of respect that they deserve?'" he told Axios.

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