As the local broadcast market reeled in uncertainty across the country over the past few months, with one major regional sports network syndicate going out of business and another exiting the business altogether, the Utah Jazz sought a new way to distribute their games. Where the franchise landed is not only what team owner Ryan Smith calls a “whole new model” for broadcasting games across the NBA, but it could also be a sign of what’s in store for others around the league.
The Jazz will broadcast all of their games that are not exclusive to national television in two locations next season, on free over-the-air television locally on KJZZ and online with a new direct-to-consumer stream for its fans, in a try to reach as many viewers as possible. It’s a clear shift from the television model NBA teams have favored for years, trading cable dollars to maximize the households they can reach.
“If you have bunny ears on your TV,” Smith told me Athletics in an interview, “you can get jazz playing.”
The Jazz had aired on AT&T SportsNet in previous seasons, but the network was owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which pulled out of the RSN industry this spring. The team’s deal with AT&T SportsNet was set to expire at the end of the 2022-23 season, and it was already looking for a new television home.
Now it will try to expand its audience as wide as it can. The franchise has launched a new media division, SEG Media, within the Smith Entertainment Group and will produce Jazz games, along with other content it says will be exclusive to the team and its new broadcasters. The games will be broadcast on KJZZ, channel 14 on the dial, locally. Salt Lake City’s CBS affiliate, KUTV-2, will also have rights to broadcast Jazz games and content, although the majority of games will be shown on KJZZ; both channels are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. SEG Media will produce the games – bringing Craig Bolerjack, Thurl Bailey and Holly Rowe back to the air – and sell advertising for them.
The new direct-to-consumer product, still unnamed, will allow fans to access games through the team’s website and an app. It will be available by paid subscription throughout the state and within a 150-mile radius of Salt Lake City – Jazz’s local market. Smith said the Jazz will also push for their games to be allowed to be streamed in outside markets as well, though that remains an aspiration and not yet a certainty and could conflict with NBA League Pass, where the league sells access to its out-of-market game.
Smith was keen to increase access to jazz playing. He said only 39 percent of Utah households could watch games when he bought the team in 2020, but believes this new way could lead to a five- to seven-fold increase in viewership.
The move to an over-the-air broadcast at home and away from a cable RSN will likely come with reduced revenue for the franchise. Although these regional sports networks became increasingly unreliable, they provided significant revenue for the teams. But RSNs have faltered across the country in 2023. Diamond Sports Group, which holds the rights to 16 NBA teams, filed for bankruptcy in February. It has also stripped the rights of the San Diego Padres and stopped paying four other teams.
Smith called the transition a step back and forward for the franchise as his sports group leans on production and advertising sales to make up for lost income.
“Cand do you wake up and look at yourself and your fans in the mirror if you have 39 percent viewership?” Smith said. He added, “We’re going to have to be creative and be aggressive about generating revenue … We know we’re going to take a short-term hit, but that’s where it’s going. And I think if we look back five years from now, everyone will say that what Utah did was actually pretty incredible.
It could be a harbinger of how NBA teams approach their local broadcasts and part of the changing tides in the broader NBA media ecosystem. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in March that he expected teams to take a hybrid broadcast approach. The Phoenix Suns announced in April that the franchise was leaving a Diamond Sports-owned RSN for its own combination of a free TV network and DTC option, though that has been suspended in a legal dispute between the Suns and Diamond Sports. (The Jazz say the franchise has received all necessary approvals from the NBA to move forward with their plan.)
The Clippers broadcast their games on their own DTC product, ClipperVision, this past season, at $199 for the year, while also having games broadcast on their local RSN. MSG Networks, home of the New York Knicks, and YES Network, which broadcasts the Nets, have announced their own direct-to-consumer apps to give fans another choice in how to watch games.
Smith said there is no price yet for a digital subscription to watch the Jazz. MSG+ will have monthly ($29.99), annual ($309.99) and game passes ($9.99) while airing five pro teams in total. YES Network also broadcasts Yankees and Liberty games and charges $24.99 per month and $239.99 per year. Some fans initially balked at these costs.
Those networks, Smith said, worked under a model where they couldn’t undercut their own cable networks and had to set prices accordingly. Jazz, notes Smith, need not worry about these considerations. Still, he adds, there are their own costs to consider, including standing up for a DTC operation, and the price will try to balance affordability without undercutting NBA League Pass rates. The Jazz may consider adding sweeteners, such as tickets or swag bags, to entice subscriptions or make them more attractive.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t get the same price,” he said. “But the reason things happen like this is because of agreements with the wider contracts. We have to thread that needle.”
If this works well with the Jazz, Smith said he could expand the DTC model to other parts of his sports empire. He has a stake in Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals, an NWSL team coming in 2024, and owns the Jazz’s G League team. Him too want to bring an NHL team to his state.
First, however, Smith is focused on making Jazz as widespread as he can. He believes the team is well positioned, unencumbered by any RSN deal in financial purgatory, to build out on its own.
(Utah Jazz Bear photo: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)