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 the company ready to launch the Bally Sports + DTC streaming service later this year, but it has also announced plans will offer HDR content for its regional sports networks Bally Sports starting in the third quarter.

Chris Ripley, Chairman and CEO of Sinclair was present 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 launch of Bally Sports+ and discussed the impact of ATSC 3.0 on the sports viewing experience, why HDR is key to Bally Sports’ future roadmap, how it sees betting and gamification exploding in the years to come, and Tennis Channel’s growth since its acquisition by Sinclair in 2016.

At NAB 2022, Sinclair Chairman and CEO Chris Ripley discussed the future of ATSC 3.0 NextGen broadcasting.

How do you see the deployment of ATSC 3.0 potentially impacting the sports viewing experience for fans in the future?
First, the deployment of greater resolution – HDR and higher pixel count – will certainly have a big impact on sports broadcasts. Sport is at the heart of [over-the-air] broadcast offering – especially NFL, playoff sports and others [high-profile] events – so this is definitely going to have a major impact.

The least publicized but equally 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 a 40 second delay on the stream, which is a very common delay in streaming. ATSC 3.0 is able to reduce that latency to less than 10 seconds, and it’s able to provide synchronicity across all devices – whether streaming or broadcasting – so everything is on the same picture.

This is going to make a difference in the consumer experience, especially when it comes to sports betting and gaming. And that’s what really excites us. We have a big push around gamification. We’re working on viewing and playing experiences with our partners at Bally’s, where you can watch and play on one screen and interact [with the broadcast]. At this moment, 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. This is going to make the experience of watching and playing that much better.

Can you provide an update on your plans to launch a Bally Sports live streaming service?
We’re obviously very excited about our upcoming direct-to-consumer Bally Sports+ launch. [streaming service]. In a way, these three years [since acquiring the Fox Sports RSNs] have done everything to get to this point. Almost from day one, we’ve been working on this launch: paving the way with MVPs, which was no small feat, building the backend technology, and getting the rights to the leagues. It’s been a long process, but we’re finally about to launch, and we couldn’t be more excited about it. This is going to be a very big step for us.

We are doing a soft launch this quarter and then expecting a full launch in Q3. We will communicate more precise dates soon.

Do you expect media rights for more professional teams to be added to the streaming service before its full launch?
The last set of rights we added in January was quite significant. There might be additional rights from here [the launch]. It’s an active discussion, so we can’t say one way or the other, but we’ll toss it regardless. And we believe that within the next 12 months we will have all the other rights we need.

What was behind Sinclair’s decision to start offering HDR content for Bally Sports’ RSNs from the end of the year? And how does this transition to the HDR factor in Sinclair’s overall strategy?
Sport has always been at the forefront in terms of resolution and image quality. And we think it’s important to keep pushing that limit. HDR, in particular, gives you a lot more depth and makes you feel like you’re in the building and watching it live much more than just adding more pixels. We think it’s important to keep pushing this ball forward not only on behalf of our own company, but also on behalf of our league and team partners. The more entertaining and visually exciting our product is, the better.

As for how this fits into our larger plans, we think adding interactivity around [the broadcast] in terms of gamification is the next frontier. But you need to have a fundamentally state-of-the-art, best-in-class image to go along with that. This is a key step in this evolution.

This will definitely be a boost for viewers, but obviously upgrading all your regional sports facilities will also be costly. Why did this make sense from an ROI perspective?
We absolutely believe it’s worth it [the investment]. Not all upgrades are written to a spreadsheet. I’m a finance guy, so it’s not easy for me to say that. But you have to keep innovating and you have to keep making your product best in class. And you must have faith that if you do this, you will be rewarded for it in the long run.

How do you see Bally Sports’ betting plans developing over the next two years? Will we see more gamification, betting-focused programming and “BetCasts” on your RSNs?
It’s going to be two exciting years ahead for Bally’s [Corp.]. They are right completed the integration of Gamesys Group, which is a major operation outside of Europe. They brought all this technology from Europe for their new app which is launching in a few markets right now. This is the first time they have offered truly best-in-class application technology. They have amazing [physical] footprint with a lot of casinos, and they have the brand deal with us, but the missing piece has always been their sports betting app offering. And so it’s coming out, and we’re really excited about it.

As they gain greater penetration in these markets, you’ll see more programming – on our [networks] as well as others. For example, they own AVP Beach Volleyball, so they’re going to start doing some cool stuff around the watching and playing experiences because they actually control the league. And they are already reiterating various viewing and playing experiences on our core sports like hockey, basketball, and baseball. Definitely a lot more to come on this.

How was the launch of the new Tennis Channel facility in Los Angeles, and how do you see this 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, many of our people could not [use it] because of COVID, but our production team is there, and they love it.

Tennis Channel has been an incredible success. When we bought it, it had around 30 million homes, and we’ve since doubled its distribution to around 60 million homes. We have also added and Tennis magazine. Today, it is the number one brand for tennis and the tennis lifestyle in the United States.

Now [we’re focused on] how to take that success in the US and go global. Tennis Channel is now present in eight countries, mainly in Europe but also in India. We are also launching it on top with the FAST and SVOD channels and bringing its digital assets to these markets as well. We just acquired our first live rights in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands with the WTA. And we will continue to look to add live rights and grow the channel as we have in the United States.

We are excited about the Tennis Channel opportunities around interactive games. It is the second most wagered sport in the world, after all, and I think there will be a lot more betting in the United States as the online sports betting market grows. Watching and playing is an important part of what we work on for Tennis Channel. We’re going to start adding proprietary video analytics to our portfolio so we can analyze our video and get proprietary datasets of what’s going on. And these datasets could also become bettable.

Editor’s note: This interview took place before Sinclair first quarter earnings call on May 4 and has been edited for length and clarity.

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