The Phoenix Suns and Mercury made waves last month, becoming the first professional sports team in America to dump their cable TV rights partner to stream their games over-the-air.
The Suns, which also own the city’s WNBA franchise, announced a partnership last week with Gray Television to carry all of the teams’ games that aren’t aired nationally, with the two franchises showing their contests on Arizona’s Family 3TV, Arizona’s Family CBS5 or AZ Family Sports Network.
The deal comes as the parent company of the franchise’s former TV rights partner, Bally Sports Arizona (Diamond Sports Group), goes through bankruptcy protection, leaving the future of the company’s Regional Sports Networks (or RSN’s) in the air.
The switch from cable to over-the-air and direct to customer TV was billed as a way to drastically increase the reach of the Suns and Mercury, including across Arizona sports betting, with a team press release touting the partnership’s ability to deliver both teams’ games to nearly 2.8 million households in the state (more than tripling the roughly 800,000 households that Bally Sports Arizona reaches).
“I’ve said from day one that our focus is our fans, our community, and every member of our organization and this deal checks every box,” new Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury Owner Mat Ishbia said in the press release.
“By going entirely over the air and building our own DTC product, the Suns and Mercury will now be accessible to millions more fans in Arizona and globally. Success comes from new and innovative ways to invest in our players, continue our mission to build a world class organization on and off the floor, and make our product available to as many people as possible.”
Will The New TV Deal Benefit Arizona Sports Bettors?
Daniel McIntosh, who serves as a teaching associate professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, told BetArizona.com that the new TV rights deal for the Suns and Mercury could tangentially benefit Arizona sports betting operators like BetMGM Sportsbook Arizona in the future.
McIntosh said that both teams’ increased visibility, coupled with their recent success on the court, could drive more Arizonans to bet on the Suns and Mercury, as they’ll be able to watch their games in an easier fashion than when both played on a RSN with limited reach.
“The key word here is reach, as reach and audience size, those actually tuning in versus those with access to tune in, are not the same,” McIntosh told BetArizona.com. “The NBA generally and the Suns specifically are very popular and currently very, very good. This increase in reach will drive incremental audience size increases which would have the impact of increasing the demand for sports betting.”
McIntosh added that the relationship between wagering and fan engagement that professional sports teams have seen from their partnership with sports betting operators is clear across Arizona NBA betting.
Sports betting industry experts, such as Brendan Bussmann, who serves as the managing partner at B Global Advisors, side with McIntosh on the potential that over-the-air and direct-to-consumer broadcasting has for professional sports teams.
“One thing that local teams are facing is that sometimes the prescribed media deals make it difficult for locals to watch the games. By airing these games on local stations, it brings the fan back into the fold and increases engagement in the team,” Bussmann said. “The Suns are not the only team looking at this and any time you can get better fan engagement, it allows to increase interest in tickets, merchandise, and overall excitement into the game.”
Whether that increased engagement makes up for the lesser amount of revenue that teams like the Suns and Mercury rake in by going with over-the-air partners, rather than cable TV providers, remains to be seen, McIntosh said.
That said, the new deal between the Suns/Mercury and Gray Television should bolster fans’ interest in the sport, which could provide Phoenix’s sports betting partner (FanDuel Sportsbook Arizona) tangible benefits in the future.
“The notion that betting on sports makes a person more likely to watch that sport to its conclusion (when the bet resolves), even if the game isn’t particularly close, is persuasive,” McIntosh said. “People will watch longer on average if they have a bet on the game. That may help drive valuations.”
Will Suns Be Local TV Rights Deal Trendsetters?
With RSN’s like Diamond Sports Group and Discovery (which broadcasts Pirates, Astros and Rockies games, among others) going through various phases of bankruptcy and liquidation, there’s no reason to expect that the Suns and Mercury will be the last teams to jump ship to over-the-air TV, McIntosh added. Though you won't find those odds on Arizona betting apps, of course.
One reason why other professional teams may follow the lead of Phoenix’s basketball teams is the sheer demand for sports on TV, McIntosh said, with 94 of the 100 most-watched telecasts over the last year being some sort of sporting event.
“It’s groundbreaking in that the Suns are the first major franchise to leave cable. However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver himself has said this type of move was inevitable and may be necessary for other teams that face the same regional network disputes,” McIntosh said. “Diamond Sports is claiming this move is a breach of contract. If the Suns can show a clear legal pathway, other teams are likely to follow.”