Scripps Sports president Brian Lawlor. Scripps Sports president Brian Lawlor. Photo by Malinda Hartong, The Hartongs

Last December, the E.W. Scripps Company announced the formation of Scripps Sports. At that point, they owned 62 local stations and the ION network, but didn’t have many notable sports rights. A year later, they’re coming off their first season of a national WNBA deal for ION, they’re in the middle of local deals with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes, and they’ve announced a deal to broadcast NWSL games this coming year. Scripps Sports president Brian Lawlor recently spoke to AA on what they’ve done so far and what’s ahead, and he said they didn’t know exactly where they’d be where they’d be a year in when they launched.

“I’m not sure where our prelaunch expectations were. When we announced Scripps Sports last December 15, we definitely felt like there was an opportunity for us to play an important role in expanding teams’ and leagues’ reach, both in local markets and nationally.”

“We did not have a target number. We did not say ‘A year from now, I hope we’re in four, or six, or eight, or two [deals].’ I think we were hoping maybe that we would have one or two local, one or two national, but we weren’t quite sure. You’ve got to go where there’s opportunity.”

Lawlor said they knew deals would be coming up both nationally and locally, but they weren’t sure just what rights they’d be able to land.

“A year ago, we knew there would be one or two rights on the national side that we had interest in, but we weren’t sure whether we’d get to be a part of those or not. And then we also knew that, on the local side, there was a lot of friction in the space. The business model was broken.”

“We did not forecast that Bally’s and Diamond would file bankruptcy. But what we did fully expect was that as teams got to the end of their deals, renewing those deals within the same framework of a regional sports network only reaching 35 or 40 percent of their market was no longer a good business model for teams.”

He said the Bally/Diamond bankruptcy filing early this year pushed that pace of change faster, as did AT&T SportsNet parent WBD Sports getting out of the RSN business.

“Clearly things accelerated, and that opened up opportunities for us that we were able to seize on. Especially with the Vegas Golden Knights; they were in the middle of a deal with AT&T SportsNet [Rocky Mountain]. But that got opened up early, and it brought us to the table.”

“And all of the friction and certainly the uncertainty with the bankruptcy with Diamond has put us at the table talking to many teams and many leagues, as all of them are contingency planning. Some teams’ natural deals expire at the end of this season. But it also looks like there’s the potential for a lot more teams to be in play at the end of this season.”

Lawlor said Scripps Sports maybe moved faster than they initially expected as a result of what’s been going on elsewhere in the RSN space.

“We probably have exceeded where we expected we would be with the number of deals we got. But certainly we have had engagement and conversations with a lot more teams because of the expedited uncertainty of the long-term consistency of the RSN deals that were already in place.”

He said the local deals so far have worked out very well.

“Our thesis was right that teams would be looking to expand their reach and that broadcast would be a good platform to be able to reach more eyeballs. We have two NHL deals that are up and running this season, one with the Vegas Golden Knights and one with the Arizona Coyotes.”

“The Golden Knights are averaging almost a 9 household rating; we’re blessed because they’re Stanley Cup champions and they started off 10-0-1, they’re still the top team in the West, and there’s just an amazing fandom there. But they’ve more than doubled their ratings from what was already considered one of the best ratings in hockey.”

“And on the Coyotes’ side, we’ve quadrupled the ratings there. That’s been a great success. It’s not at the same level as the Golden Knights, but there’s the visibility and the number of households that we’re now in for the Coyotes.”

“And the team’s playing really well, and there’s growing interest in the team by fans. And I think we’ve been really pleased with the audience, the lift, and the advertiser engagement. They’ve done very well with sponsorships and activations. So I think we’re really pleased.”

He said an advantage of the Golden Knights deal was that it was able to be worked out well in advance of the season.

“The Golden Knights deal was great; we got to begin discussions with them six or seven months before their deal was up, spend a couple of weeks working with them, ultimately, we were lucky enough to be selected. That deal was announced several months before our broadcasts started, in the middle of their playoff run. It gave us a lot of time for sponsorships.”

“And we were handling the production with that deal, so that allowed us to rework the graphics and the look of the games. And that’s an ideal model, to have that kind of time to really be thoughtful and do it right, to be able to set up everything right.”

The Coyotes deal has seen more change, including even a shift in where the games air (from one station’s secondary channel to a full over-the-air station). Lawlor said that was a function of the timing and the bankruptcy process.

“The problem for the Coyotes was they had a partnership with Bally’s, and Bally’s in Phoenix, they previously had the Suns, the Diamondbacks, and the Coyotes. And the Suns and Bally’s parted ways, and then the Diamondbacks and Bally’s parted ways, so all of a sudden, you had the Coyotes sitting there, the only one left with Bally’s. But of course the bankruptcy was all tied up in court. It was very clear that they were going to get broken up with, that that contract was not going to survive another season.”

“But the problem was it was locked up in court and there was so much uncertainty. Sort of close to the beginning of the season, we started talking to the Coyotes. But at the same time, they were still actively involved with Bally’s, trying to determine if Bally’s was going to be producing and distributing them for another season. Within two or three weeks of the beginning of the season, we reached an agreement, and the court blessed that agreement that allowed them to separate. But it was very little time.”

He said they presented the initial alternate channel setup as a short-term one-year fix to the Coyotes, though, and that was understood.

“Prior to that, the Coyotes had shared with us that they were working with the NHL to have production ready in case there was a late breakup. But when we started talking to the Coyotes, we said ‘We’re very much interested in having a long-term partnership, but obviously we’re two to three weeks away from the beginning of the season. We have two stations in Phoenix, one is an ABC station under contract and one is a CW station under contract. We’re not able to clear your games this season on either of those, but we can put you on a second station, a multicast, this season, with the idea that at the end of the year we would be able to move things around and then we would move you up to a primary station.'”

“We were honest with them from the beginning that it wasn’t an ideal scenario. They deserved a better platform than we could offer, but that was all we had with three weeks notice. But I think they were interested and understood that on a long-term deal, the next four years would be attractive. And ultimately it made sense that we were partners together.”

Lawlor said being able to put the Coyotes on a main channel this year was an unexpected bonus.

“And then several weeks or a month into our agreement, we were able to engage in a negotiation with CW that affected other markets and other assets, which allowed us to move the CW affiliation off our primary channel, thus opening up the channel for us to be able to pull the Coyotes forward and give them a primary broadcast platform this year. It wasn’t the Coyotes’ fault that their contract wasn’t going to continue with Bally’s, it was Bally’s bailing on them.”

“And it wasn’t their fault that their options were limited three weeks before the season started. They understood that the multicast option that we put in front of them was not ideal, but there were limited options, and there was a much better solution for the final number of years. And fortunately we were able to move that forward, and that allowed us to quickly put them on a better platform. …I’m really excited now that we’ve got them onto their permanent channel where they can really start to engage fans for the next couple of years.”

On the WNBA front, Lawlor said women’s sports was a priority for them with the launch of Scripps Sports.

“We clearly had interest in advancing the priority of women’s sports. We believed that ION was a platform that really was complementary to supporting women’s sports. When we announced the creation of Scripps Sports, we had had a lot of conversations with the Scripps board about the growing trajectory of women’s sports, and how hard it was in America to be a women’s sports fan because of the inconsistency in where you find high-profile women’s sports. And we felt we could be a solution for that.”

“And after we announced, we started talking to the WNBA and the NBA just about future rights and what they would look like, and through those conversations were able to identify an opportunity to segment some rights that wouldn’t infringe on any of their current deals. And working with them, we were able to craft an opportunity to put together all of their Friday night deals into one package that enabled us to build a big national franchise on a big platform with regular weekly distribution.”

That deal, the first Scripps Sports signed, came together just five weeks before last season started. Lawlor said everyone pulled together to make it work.

“We were thrilled with how that came together. Ideally, it would not be five weeks, in a perfect world, it would be five months, but we were five weeks before the beginning of the season, and we had a solution that allowed us to quickly get into sports on ION, which was certainly a goal of ours and an opportunity to create a big visible franchise with the WNBA. So I think everyone agreed that it was a tremendous opportunity.”

He said he was impressed by how fast that national window took off.

“We were amazed at how quickly fans found the WNBA on ION, considering that ION had never been a place for sports before. We realized the challenge of trying to establish ION as a place for sports. But with that consistency, with a significant marketing effort, with a partnership with the league, we were very successful in our ratings.”

“Our ratings in a number of weeks started to surpass ESPN on a weekly basis, they were always ahead of NBATV and ESPN2. We were lifting the overall reach of the WNBA by almost 30 percent. So we were really pleased with how quickly that came together and the engagement by advertisers.”

And he said the success there further motivated Scripps to go after NWSL rights.

“When we started Scripps Sports, we knew when the NWSL’s rights were up, and we always wanted to be part of distributing their games in some fashion. And we’re thrilled to be part of this deal. We think this deal is really a model for many future rights, where it’s over-the-air broadcasters, visible, cable distribution, and some streaming direct-to-consumer. I think it’s really a good model for sports deals moving forward.”

The NWSL deal was announced well ahead of next season, though, and Lawlor said that preparation time will be helpful.

“It will be much nicer than five weeks. We’re lucky to have the rights to broadcast the NWSL draft Jan. 12, so we’re deep into the production meetings for that. And then we’ve got until March 16 to get ready for the first game.”

This year, Scripps will have WNBA doubleheaders on Fridays on ION and NWSL doubleheaders there Saturday. Lawlor said the studio shows they’re adding for both packages will further elevate them.

“I think one of the really cool advances we’ll make this year for both the NWSL and the WNBA is the addition of studio shows for both of those,” he said. “In both cases, we’re going to do a national studio show, 7-7:30 each night setting up the week and the night, we’ll have a first national game 7:30 to roughly 9:30, come back to the studio to wrap that game and prep for a second game, and then we’ll have a second national game beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern through midnight. We’re really excited for both of these leagues to have studio shows dedicated to their sport that feel like a pregame to a NFL Sunday. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity.”

And for 2024, Lawlor said the sky is the limit for what Scripps Sports can do.

“I think you’ll see the next level of execution on the NWSL and the WNBA. I think the studio shows will really start to define and help to establish a place for women’s sports in the U.S. I think we’ll really have some incredible platforms to showcase some of the best women’s sports in America.”

“And then on the local side, I really expect a lot more disruption from the fallout of Diamond. So I think you’ll see us continuing to acquire sports rights in markets where we currently have a footprint, places that we feel like we can partner with a team to really elevate their distribution and create good value for the team, for our company, and for advertisers.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.