By Joel Warner
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Visitors to the Denver Tech Center headquarters of Altitude Sports & Entertainment, a new network owned by millionaire investor Stan Kroenke, might expect it to resemble Athens a couple of weeks prior to the start of this year's Summer Olympics. After all, Greek organizers were still desperately trying to complete construction projects on the eve of the Games, despite a head start of seven years -- and it's been less than seven months since the first announcement about Altitude was made.
But aside from a few "wet paint" signs near the entrance to its studio, Altitude appears ready for air, and a sense of calm emanates from the staffers rehearsing in advance of its September 4 debut. Vice President of Operations Dave Zur proudly shows how he and his comrades transformed space previously occupied by a cell-phone company and a credit firm into a high-tech broadcasting facility, and he points out the benefits of sharing the building with Crown Media, which beams the Hallmark Channel to the United States, Europe and beyond using the same gear that's at his disposal.
So why is Altitude spokesman Tom Philand downplaying the network's bow by referring to it as a "soft launch"? For one thing, marquee games featuring the revitalized Denver Nuggets, which Kroenke owns, won't be on the air for weeks, and contests starring the Colorado Avalanche, another Kroenke property, are likely to be delayed indefinitely. Most observers believe that the impending National Hockey League season won't start until January, at the earliest, and may very well be canceled entirely because of nettlesome labor issues.
Just as important, Altitude has not yet worked out a carriage agreement with Comcast, the area's largest cable provider, and Philand admits that "it would be somewhat shocking" to him if everything was resolved by early September. Subscribers to EchoStar's DISH Network, which has placed Altitude on Channel 410, will be able to check out the network's fare from day one, and thanks to an assortment of agreements with smaller cable companies, Colorado viewers in Lakewood and parts of Summit, Weld and Eagle counties will, too. Moreover, the Rocky Mountain News reports that a compact with Adelphia Communications in Colorado Springs is pending; Philand says an announcement on that subject is coming on August 26. But Comcast is the big fish, and it's not yet on the line.
Such factors have increased the degree of difficulty when it comes to making Altitude a success. In Philand's words, "A lot of people have fairly stated that this is a risky proposition."
He's not exaggerating. A handful of boutique sports networks have done well -- most notably, the YES Network, which is anchored by New York Yankees games. However, several high-profile sports nets have flopped, usually because they couldn't get on cable. Action Sports Cable Network, which showcased Microsoft founder Paul Allen's NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers, folded in 2002 after sixteen months of operation because it failed to ink a pact with AT&T Broadband, Portland's primary cable company. A similar fate befell the questionably named Victory Sports One, a venue for baseball's Minnesota Twins that went belly-up in less than a year because the only cable outfits that picked it up weren't in major metropolitan areas.
Fox Sports Net's Rocky Mountain branch owes much of its prominence in the marketplace to the Nuggets and the Avs, whose broadcast rights it owned through the end of last season -- and as these contracts neared expiration, Fox execs offered big dollars to Kroenke for renewals. Although Philand doesn't mention specific numbers, he says, "Stan walked away from an awful lot of guaranteed money. But at the end of the day, he felt we could do more. I think that speaks to his commitment to better bring his brands to the marketplace."
At first glance, the loss of the Nuggets and the Avs seems like a disaster for Fox Sports, because its only remaining major Denver-area pro-sports collective is the Colorado Rockies, who've sucked longer and harder than Jenna Jameson. Yet after the Altitude announcement, Fox Sports extended its contract with the Rockies, for a variety of surprisingly sensible reasons. Even though the Rockies remain near the bottom of the National League West standings, Fox personnel say their season-to-date ratings are up by approximately 15 percent over last year's tally, and by a point or two above the numbers generated by Nuggets broadcasts in 2003-2004. As a bonus, the Rockies appear in about twice as many games per annum as the Nuggets or Avs, excluding the playoffs, thereby filling up many more hours of airtime.
The folks at Fox have also established a firmer tie to the biggest kahuna in Denver pro sports, the Broncos. Channel 4, the official Broncos station, airs a pre-game show called Countdown to Kickoff at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. Now, at that program's conclusion, anchors will hype another half hour of pre-game coverage on Fox Sports that will originate from Channel 4's studio but be co-hosted by Fox Sports anchor Dave Benz. After the game, the process will repeat. Fox Sports also gets to replay four Broncos pre-season games up to three times apiece. Sure, it sounds tedious, but there are probably enough Broncos diehards to make the scheme work as a supplement to Fox Sports' solid lineup of homegrown shows -- like the Rocky Mountain Sports Report, anchored by Marc Soicher and Tim Ring.