When Sinclair Broadcast Group acquired 21 regional sports networks from The Walt Disney Co., it transformed its business from being one of the nation’s largest local TV station owners known for its conservative editorial bent into a media conglomerate with a huge stake in sports broadcasting.
It soon began looking for a partner to get in on what some see as the next evolution in media. Fans not only want to watch local and regional sports, Sinclair executives believe, but they want to bet on those games, too.
“Sports betting is going to be part of a bigger mega-trend,” the “gamification” of sports, Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley said during a recent interview.
After talking with sports betting players and gaming operators, Sinclair agreed to a partnership announced in November with casino operator Bally’s.
Ripley said the Bally’s venture represents a crucial move into a new chapter for a company that expects to become the Baltimore area’s only Fortune 500 company when the list is released in May.
“In media, this is a scale game,” Ripley said. “If you’re not adding assets and operations, you really should be exiting media, because it is a scale industry at this point with tech coming in. ... We’ve invested heavily in making sure we can be where the consumer is in terms of consumption.”
That has meant investing across platforms in websites, mobile apps and streaming services such as Sinclair’s STIRR. And it means increasingly making the experience interactive. It’s part of a lengthy transformation from earlier days of broadcast when Sinclair started with a single Baltimore TV station.
But embracing sports and gambling doesn’t mean giving up its past and present as a local broadcaster and news provider. It just adds another dimension to the business, one seemingly less political.
“Sports are apolitical, as well as local, and provide a welcome relief from the issues of the day,” Ripley said in a statement. “But, we also remain dedicated to providing our viewers with the vital local and national news coverage they need to make informed decisions every day ... We will continue to be a one-stop shop for our viewers for their choice of news, sports and entertainment.”
Getting Sinclair to where it is today hasn’t come without pain. After paying $10.6 billion for the sports networks last year, Sinclair needed to write off $4.2 billion of their value this year as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted play of both college and professional sports. It said COVID-19 delays and shutdowns cut into the sports business and its distribution revenue declined, partly because of the loss of two distributors — YouTube and Hulu — that made up about 10% of its local sports distribution revenue.
But Sinclair continues to bet big on sports alongside its local news programming, believing that the future will involve betting on teams and players, made possible as legalized sports gambling spreads across the United States in the wake of a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that reversed a federal statute that had kept it mostly in Nevada.
Single-game sports betting is now legally offered through bricks-and-mortar or online sportsbooks in 19 states and Washington, according to the American Gaming Association. Maryland, where voters approved a sports gaming referendum last month, is one of six states that has authorized it but not yet made it available.
Sports betting has taken off, growing 27% this year even as overall gambling revenue has plummeted amid COVID-19 casino closures. The gaming association said the latest figures partly reflect strong consumer interest in new legal betting markets in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Washington, D.C.
Sinclair and Bally’s plan to incorporate online sports betting technology into all the former Fox regional sports networks, creating an interactive sports gambling experience for viewers.
“This arrangement represents an opportunity to revolutionize the U.S. sports betting, gaming and media industries,” said Soo Kim, chairman of Bally’s board of directors, in announcing the deal last month.
Bally’s, just entering sports betting with the deal, will benefit from marketing on Sinclair’s sports networks, which will be rebranded with the Bally’s name, and on The Tennis Channel, which Sinclair also owns. Sinclair and Bally’s will work together to create original, sports betting-focused talk-show type programming. And Sinclair is planning to take a significant stake in Bally’s.
Ripley said the deal brings together the largest collection of premium U.S. sports programming, with more than 5,000 events a year that can be targeted to viewers in particular states. The sports networks make up the largest collection of such channels in the market and include exclusive local rights to 42 professional baseball, basketball and hockey teams.
By taking a stake in Bally’s, which operates 14 casinos in 10 markets, Sinclair benefits because land-based casinos have the right in most states to be the first to launch online sports betting after it becomes legalized.
Though other media and gaming companies have joined forces on sports betting, an agreement reached in May 2019 by Fox Sports and The Stars Group may be the most similar to Sinclair’s deal with Bally’s. Fox and Stars launched Fox Bet, calling it the first of a kind national media and sports wagering partnership. One of its products enables customers in states with regulated betting to wager on the outcome of sporting events.
Betting on sports has become one of the fastest growing components of gambling, said James Karmel, a history professor and gaming analyst at Harford Community College and the author of “Gambling on the American Dream: Atlantic City and the Casino Era.”
He expects the coming year to be a strong one for gaming, with the COVID-19 vaccine promising more normalized casino operations, mobile gaming expanding and sports betting gaining steam in more states.
“Sinclair is going to have a major presence through these networks,” Karmel said. “They’re going to be able to show these games and connect through the ‘igaming’ platform that Bally’s has, so it will make for a smooth sports betting system that both Bally’s and Sinclair will benefit from.”
Bally’s will launch its first sports betting app, likely this spring, that consumers can download on their phones in various markets. Fans will be able to place bets before and during games.
Eventually, viewers will be able to play a game within a game, Ripley said.
“What we want to move to is making watching sports as entertaining as playing a video game,” an experience with interactivity, visually stunning graphics and rewards, either real or virtual, he said.
Fans could use their phone as a controller and watch a sportscast on TV with the game they’re playing overlaid like a video game, he said. They could bet, for instance, on a baseball game’s next pitch or next inning.
Such watch-and-play experiences are expected to appeal to the 18-to-34-year-old demographic that has a strong interest in sports betting and gaming but tends to watch sports less than older viewers. For underage players and in states without legalized sports betting, virtual rewards could be offered.
“When you do sports betting you watch more sports,” Ripley said. “It all adds up to getting more people engaged with sports, which is good for our league partners and our teams, because that’s the future of the sport.”
Experts said the Bally’s agreement appears to offer new opportunities for the Sinclair’s sports networks and looks to be a good deal for both companies.
Ripley said he is hopeful that with the vaccine on the way, sports seasons can get back to normal soon.
“It’s been a tough year for sports,” though ratings and advertising were up for those games that were played, he said. “That’s a good sign. There’s a lot of pent-up demand to see sports.”