Sports

How Ball Arena Vaccine Mandate Is Helped by Altitude-Comcast Stalemate

A look at Ball Arena prior to the start of a Denver Nuggets game in April.
Photo by Michael Roberts
A look at Ball Arena prior to the start of a Denver Nuggets game in April.
Yesterday, October 27, after Kroenke Sports & Entertainment announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Ball Arena, home of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, I instantly thought about the man and woman I sat near at the last Nuggets game I attended, back in April. At that time, attendance was limited to 4,050 people, or about 22 percent of the venue's capacity, and masks were required. But this pair defiantly wore face coverings on their chins, as if daring an usher to chastise them (none did), and the woman angrily flipped off a video in which Altitude Sports' Vic Lombardi explained safety protocols.

But if these two are unlikely to comply with Ball Arena's new rules, plenty of others will, in part because opportunities to see the Nuggets and Avs on television are so limited. The stalemate between KSE-owned Altitude Sports, which owns broadcast rights for both squads, and two major television providers — most prominently Comcast, which Altitude sued back in November 2019 over the refusal to air its content — is now preventing many fans from regularly seeing their faves for the third season in a row, and there's no end in sight.

The Ball Arena move comes as no surprise. Colorado is currently generating some of the pandemic's worst data, and at a press conference on October 21, Governor Jared Polis advised people still resisting immunization not to attend a game at Ball Arena. "If you haven't been vaccinated, I would really want to alert Coloradans to the danger of attending those large indoor events," he said. "It's really important to avoid the kinds of crowded indoor events where you could easily contract the virus." Going anyway could result in a situation where unprotected ticket buyers would have to "head to the hospital, where they could put you on a ventilator and you could lose your life, like over 7,000 of our fellow Coloradans."

This last number is low. As of October 28, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment calculates that 8,426 people in the state have died from COVID-19.

The vaccine mandate for Ball Arena and another KSE-owned venue, the Paramount Theatre, is slated to go into effect on November 10. It calls for all event attendees, working staff and team personnel ages twelve and older to present proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or evidence that they've received a negative test for the disease within the previous 72 hours. Those under twelve are exempted from this procedure, but everyone two or older must wear a face covering whenever they're not eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status.

A statement from Matt Hutchings, KSE's executive vice president and chief operating officer, explains the decision. "After consultation with local, state and federal government and health authorities along with the guidance of the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), National Lacrosse League (NLL) and in consultation with national concert promoters and entertainment providers, the decision to institute these protocols for all events reinforces KSE’s continued commitment to ensure that the health, safety and wellness of our fans, frontline workers, staff, performers and athletes is our top priority," it reads. "The verification process for the proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test will take place outside of the entrances at each facility, and we encourage our fans to arrive early, come prepared with the required documentation for entry and to wear a face mask at all times while inside the venue except when eating and drinking."

Those who would prefer to watch the games on television rather than follow these dictates don't have a lot of options. Because the Avs and the Nuggets are both considered contenders in their respective leagues, a decent number of their contests are appearing on national broadcasts from the likes of ESPN. But right now, the only major carrier in the metro area featuring Altitude TV is DIRECTV; it remains unavailable on both Comcast and DISH Network.

In the late summer of 2019, when this conflict first came to a head, Altitude TV mounted a major media blitz in an effort to pressure Comcast and DISH into blinking, with Hutchings taking the lead — and DIRECTV agreed on a deal early that fall. This campaign continued through that season and the next; in a February 2021 interview with Lombardi, he argued that Comcast deserved its fair share of the blame for what was happening.

This season, however, Altitude is taking a much quieter approach. During the previous two seasons, the Comcast fight was front and center on the network's website, but there's currently no reference to the standoff on its home page. True, the how-to-watch page includes a link to a petition titled "Bring Back My Nuggets, Avalanche, Rapids & Mammoth On Altitude TV" that's been signed by more than 47,000 people to date, as well as its streaming agreement with AT&T Sports, which allows access to AT&T's Choice package; prices start at $84.99 per month. Altitude has also cobbled together agreements with smaller cable providers in a ten-state region that includes Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah; click for more details.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit grinds on. A look at the court docket for Altitude Sports & Entertainment v. Comcast Corporation shows at least nine motions, rulings or orders since August, with the most recent filing on October 14. But most of the actions are minor, dealing with issues such as attorney changes and expert testimony, and there appears to be little actual progress.

This impasse may make fans more willing to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend Nuggets and Avs games in person — though there are likely to be at least a couple of exceptions.