Inside the NHL
There wasn’t a whole lot of imagination behind the Kraken’s decision to pair up with ROOT Sports Northwest as its television broadcast partner.
In fact, it’s fair to say any coming Kraken-related programming on that Mariners-owned regional sports network (RSN) will have to be far more imaginative and interesting than this deal to get viewers to buy in.
And some fans will need to buy in more than others: Cable television “cord cutters” for one, now face the prospect of paying $85 in monthly fees for an AT&T TV streaming package that includes ROOT Sports NW if they want to watch Kraken games.
The Mariners in April 2013 bought a 71% controlling stake in ROOT Sports from DirecTV, which retained the rest and managed all broadcast infrastructure and logistics within the partnership. In 2014, AT&T bought DirecTV and its RSN products, which is why it now offers them through its streaming service.
The Kraken could have tried putting together a separate, over-the-top streaming package — perhaps even working with a sponsor such as Amazon to get it done in a financially palatable way for everybody. But this wasn’t that type of groundbreaking RSN deal.
This was a vanilla ice cream cone. An empty-net goal. A decision to drop the gloves and duke it out with Sidney Crosby instead of taking your chances with Tom Wilson.
The Kraken made about the easiest “no-brainer” decision it could have by allowing ROOT Sports to pay it a simple yearly fee between $15 million and $30 million for the right to broadcast its games. In an era when teams such as the Mariners have bought their own networks or partnered with squads from other sports on joint ventures and streaming experiments, this was purely back-to-mid-2000s basics.
There doesn’t even appear to be a local NBA guarantee attached, though you’d think ROOT Sports would be at the front of that line given all the reasons the NHL part makes sense for both sides.
Primary among them is distribution.
DirecTV and the Mariners have a virtual lock through ROOT Sports on a five-state territory in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho. As we’ve written for years, the satellite-based distribution of ROOT Sports doesn’t require cable wires to be laid underground to carry a signal.
That guarantees ROOT Sports can be beamed just about anywhere at the flick of a switch and that even rival cable providers will pay to carry its programming so their own customers won’t be the only ones unable to see Mariners games. Jokes about the Mariners’ on-field performance aside, the team has never had trouble attracting strong TV audiences.
And that widespread exposure is exactly what the Kraken wants as it builds a fan base — exposure in far-flung regions and in their restaurants and bars, where cord-cutters can go if they want to see games without paying for streaming at home.
“We have a fully distributed network in the Kraken territory,” said Patrick Crumb, the AT&T Sports Networks president who lives in the Seattle area. “And I know that was a huge factor. And when you look at some of the communal aspects of NHL hockey viewing, when you think of The Angry Beaver or other bars and hospitality areas where fans gather, they’re not in the arena but they still want to be with their fellow fans.”
DirecTV dominates broadcasts in such establishments, through products such as its NFL Sunday Ticket package.
Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke on Tuesday referenced the commercial business distribution part as a key component. Leiweke also lauded the ability to show Kraken games in Alaska, where hockey is popular.
And what do the Mariners get?
Well, something other than Mariners games to show on ROOT Sports. There are only so many Gonzaga basketball and Big Sky Conference football games anyone will watch once baseball season ends.
Now, they’ve got a winter full of major pro games guaranteed, plus a Kraken magazine show for non-game days. The RSN will provide alternate channel options on spring days the Mariners and Kraken overlap.
As I said, this was as no-brainer as it gets. The deal could have been written up the day the Kraken franchise was announced in December 2018.
In fact, it sounds like serious talks began last fall and wrapped up by the Christmas holiday.
And that’s not a surprise.
Leiweke already knew Mariners owner John Stanton going back more than a decade when Leiweke ran the Seahawks. They both have known Crumb for years. No icebreaker meetings needed.
And yeah, some cord-cutters won’t be thrilled, but let’s not forget we’re in a COVID-19 pandemic that has burned through bank vaults’ worth of revenue for teams playing restricted schedules in empty venues.
The Kraken’s owners spent $650 million to acquire the franchise. They’re about to play in a main arena and practice facility where another $1 billion-plus has been committed and don’t know yet if they can sell tickets to games next season.
So this probably wasn’t the time for them to try running a TV network. Or to revolutionize a live streaming model.
Look, there are some cheap streaming services out there and places where you can get sports outside the “Big Four” leagues for a fairly low cost. But very few carry major live sports on a local team level.
Typically, if you’re a fan of a major sport beyond the NFL, you’ll have to pay good money to watch your local team.
The Kraken is spending plenty of money in other areas. On this TV deal, amid a highly uncertain COVID-19 backdrop, the Kraken simply took the easy money and ran with it.