Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley became one of sports media industry’s biggest players in one fell swoop.
In late August, after a long, protracted and very public bidding process, Sinclair secured the purchase of 21 regional sports networks (excluding YES Network) that Disney was forced to offload as part of its acquisition of 21st Century Fox.
“Personally, it was a roller coaster,” Ripley said after a panel at last month’s Advertising Week in New York, where he sat alongside NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former NBA commissioner David Stern.
The process to offload these RSNs took months, and it seemed like every minute detail of the proceedings was leaked to the press, with Ripley mentioning that the New York Post enabled him and his competitors to know exactly what everyone was doing.
“The great thing is you had this transparency,” Ripley said. “It’s unusual to have that in a process where you feel you have a good lay of the land, but sometimes it was almost too much information. You’re like, ‘What do you do with all this?’ You can out-think yourself.”
In the end, Ripley said Sinclair was this close to being beaten out by Liberty Media for the group of sports networks that hold the TV rights to roughly 55% of the MLB, NHL, NBA and MLS franchises, adding that they essentially created their own competition.
“The distributors, the cable companies of the world, didn’t want us to win,” he said, even though Sinclair would still be relatively smaller than some of its cable company competitors. “We were combining some of the most strongest sports assets in the market with some of the most watched channels in the market in the form of the broadcast stations.”
Had the bidding process gone a day or too longer, Ripley said, Liberty probably would’ve defeated Sinclair. This came just over a year after Sinclair’s attempted $3.9 billion merger agreement with Tribune Media Company collapsed, for a variety of reasons. It would have, according to Wired, given the company “access to 73% of U.S. households.”
Sinclair, founded in 1986, wasn’t always interested in getting into the sports business. Ripley, 42, came aboard in 2014 as Chief Financial Officer and noticed how powerful sports programming like the NFL was when it was shown on company-owned broadcast stations.
“So it wasn’t that hard to convince people that sports was where we wanted to have a position in,” Ripley said, “because you could lay out the case for it pretty easily.”
Ripley was appointed to president and CEO in 2017 and has helped the company grow dramatically since from its suburban Baltimore headquarters. Most of his time as CEO is spent thinking about strategy and where the company is headed in five or 10 years time. It’s not a coincidence, Ripley said, that the company began looking into sports as his tenure with the company began.
“That’s the sort of thinking that I do,” he said. “That’s why I like to sit at my desk and stare out the window for a while and just think about where this ecosystem is going and how to position the company for success.”
And now that all these RSNs are in Sinclair’s control, Ripley has big plans in how to monetize and utilize these channels to maximize their potential. That begins, in his words, with making the viewer experience more engaging. And rather than having each RSN do that individually, Ripley will roll out a plan for all 21 networks, most notably a Sinclair-branded replacement for the Fox Sports Go app that will be ready within 12-18 months.
“It’s just a basic streaming app, right? There’s so much more that can be done with it,” Ripley said. “They said ‘ok, we need a streaming app.’ So BAMTech built that for them. It’s got no other content. It’s got no overlays, digital data, it doesn’t have much in the way of interactivity. So we think it should have a much more fulsome experience for the viewers. We think it can be core to what we do as opposed to this afterthought.”
Sinclair plans on using its own technology, similar to what powers its own OTT platform STIRR, to create a new app that won’t just be about streaming games, but also additional content around the teams and it’ll utilize data from what’s going on during the live games themselves.
“And ultimately,” Ripley said, and most importantly, “we see that as a place where we can add activity in the form of free to play and real money betting.”
Ripley imagines a future where fans will all watch through this app rather than through conventional means.
“Having an all digital experience, to me, is where the future is,” Ripley said. “Eventually that will be the only experience, as opposed to having this bifurcated world where you can watch streaming or conventional.”
Starting next season, Sinclair is going to have its hands in two of the country’s most important RSNs, the new Chicago Cubs channel Marquee Sports Network, and YES, co-owned with the Yankees and Amazon. Ripley is super excited about Marquee, and how the Cubs will be the only professional team on the network with the expectations of all Cubbies coverage all the time.
“If you’re a fan, you’re gonna love this,” Ripley said. “Not just all the games, but you’re gonna be getting studio programming, other features that just focus on Cubs and let you go deeper.”
As for YES, Ripley is going to look closely at its new partnership with Amazon, especially with Amazon’s plans to exclusively broadcast a few Yankees games next season on its OTT Prime Video streaming service.
“We’ll be watching that closely in terms of the innovations that they add,” Ripley said. “They’re going to make a more compelling experience for the viewer on those games. And we’ll see what works, and we’ll take that and spread it to the rest.”
Ultimately, Ripley said that Sinclair is still much smaller than its competitors but is in a good position for a long-term, sustainable business under his leadership. And chances are if you’re a sports fan, Ripley and Sinclair are going to have a big say on how you watch your favorite team’s games now and in the foreseeable future.