We don't know what Fox Sports Midwest will be called if its pending sale to Sinclair Broadcast Group is approved by federal regulators. But we do know that Sinclair plans to bring a considerable amount of sports gambling content to its telecasts.
FSM, the local television home of the Cardinals and Blues, is one of 21 regional sports networks (known in the business as RSNs) that the government has ordered the Walt Disney Company to sell.
Disney tried to acquire the RSNs in a $10.6 billion deal it struck with 21st Century Fox in 2018 to buy many of its properties, including its film and television studios and several cable channels, among them FX and National Geographic. But the Department of Justice ruled that Disney would have to sell the sports networks because of concerns about it monopolizing the sports TV landscape. It already owns behemoth ESPN as well as ABC Sports.
Sinclair also is a powerhouse. It owns or has a hand in 191 local television stations in 89 markets — including St. Louis, with KDNL (Channel 30). That's the most stations for any company in the United States.
Some cable and satellite TV operators have expressed concern that Sinclair would gain too much power in trying to set prices for the content. But Sinclair chief executive Chris Ripley said in a recent conference call with financial analysts to discuss the acquisition of the sports networks that he doesn't foresee any problems in gaining federal approval.
"We do expect that to go fairly quickly given this is a derivative transaction off the Disney-Fox merger," he said, adding that he expects the deal to close by September. The transaction involves media rights to 42 teams — 14 in Major League Baseball, 16 in the NBA and 12 in the NHL.
Ripley indicated that no immediate major changes are planned.
"One of the reasons why this asset is so special is (because of) the people around it that built it into what it is today and that are here to deliver on what it could be tomorrow as a part of the Sinclair family," he said. "We look forward to welcoming you and working with you once we close. We also look forward to continuing the great relationship this business has had with the teams, owners, fans and respective leagues."
UPPING THE ANTE
The regionals, including FSM, could have a vastly different approach down the line.
Ripley is extremely bullish on sports gambling, which the Supreme Court ended the ban on across the country last year and which numerous states since have legalized (though not Missouri and Illinois).
"This is expected to become a $5 billion industry over the next six years, and we see upside from increased viewership, advertising and in-play betting integrated directly into the media," he said. "With over 5,300 live events per year, we believe the RSNs will be in an optimal position to benefit from the positive impact of legalized sports betting."
His vision goes beyond merely listing basic point spreads and over-under totals. He points to gambling-related telecasts that already have popped up, such as some the NBA's Washington Wizards tinkered with this season. There was no real cash betting; instead, a point system was used to award prizes.
“Combining the excitement of live Wizards games with engaging predictive gaming and data feeds will deliver a very entertaining experience for viewers, from first-time gaming players to savvy sports bettors,” NBC Sports Washington general manager Damon Phillips said shortly before the package began.
The gambling-centric productions appeared on a secondary outlet (similar to Fox Sports Midwest Plus in this area), while the traditional telecasts were shown on the main channel.
"We were very pleased with all of the metrics from the eight telecasts," an NBC Sports Washington spokesperson said. "Especially (impressive was) the engagement — such as amount of participants, how many questions they answered, and how long they were active on the site."
If things fall into place, there could be a day when viewers in locations where sports betting is league could make real-time bets on the TV screen and mobile devices on items such as the odds of the next batter hitting a home run, the result of the next shot in basketball (conventional basket, 3-pointer, miss, foul, etc.) and the number of yards a football play will net.
"We anticipate playing a leading role in these types of initiative going forward," Ripley said. He called sports betting a "mega-trend."
Ripley also indicated that Sinclair would want to produce more programming than regionals such as FSM now have. The current fare does not go much beyond game telecasts, pregame and postgame shows.
He also suggested that some of the local sports networks' content could end up on local Sinclair over-the-air stations, such as Channel 30. And he is undeterred by the trend of viewers to abandon traditional cable TV for alternative programming providers such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.
"We believe such concerns have been overstated," he said. "Sports- and news-viewing viewership among the key 25-54 demographic is growing relative to all other content as (over-the-air) entertainment is losing share due to the emergence of streaming and on-demand options. (But) sports and news are typically consumed live, which plays to our strength. Local sports not only have resilient and loyal fan bases, but is some of the most-watched programming on television.
"They are an incredible entertainment value for the price of less than a Starbucks cappuccino per month. One household gets to enjoy almost every night their local MLB, NBA and NHL team in prime time. An incredible value for anyone."
"We will become the leading local sports and news company in the country. There is a lot to like about this transaction."
Not to be left out, Fox Sports recently announced it is buying a small stake in The Stars Group, owner of PokerStars, for about $236 million. The companies plan to get into sports betting this fall, under the name "Fox Bet," in states in which they are licensed.
And ESPN announced this week that it is forming a partnership with casino megapower Caesars Entertainment and will construct a studio to produce sports-gambling content in The Linq (formerly Imperial Palace), one of eight casino/hotels it owns on the Las Vegas Strip. Look for reports and full-length programs from there to be featured prominently on ESPN and related outlets after the facility opens next year.
"The sports betting landscape has changed, and fans are coming to us for this kind of information more than ever before,” ESPN vice president of business development Mike Morrison said in a statement. “We are poised to expand our coverage in a big way.”