This year, for the first time in recent memory, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche are expected to be legitimate title contenders during the same season. Yet mere weeks before the start of the regular campaign for both teams, Altitude Sports, their network home, isn't airing on its three most significant television platforms — Comcast, DISH and DIRECTV — as a result of negotiations over fees that have turned ugly. And Kenny Miller, Altitude's general manager, executive vice president and executive producer, is making no promises that the situation will be resolved soon.
"I certainly am hopeful we won’t miss the first puck drop or tip-off," Miller notes via email, adding, "As a consumer, I would be unbelievably frustrated and angry that my Avs and Nuggets would be taken away from me."
Suzanne Trantow, Rocky Mountain region lead public relations manager for AT&T, which owns DIRECTV, counters by redirecting the blame for the situation. In an email, she writes, "Unfortunately, Altitude forced AT&T to remove its channel from our customers’ lineups. ... We will not agree to bad deals that do a disservice to our customers, even if it means no longer carrying certain content."
Comcast, for its part, didn't respond to Westword's request for comment about the Altitude impasse, but it's not exactly a mystery about where the brand marketed locally as Xfinity stands. A few days after access to content was severed, Altitude's channel began repeating a message referring viewers to a website, xfinity.com/facts/altitude, that casts Comcast as a hostage to an unprincipled partner. An excerpt from an FAQ section reads: "Sometimes when contracts are up for renewal, programmers demand excessive fees and a fair agreement cannot be reached before the contract expiration date. If this happens, the TV provider may not air the programming. This results in a missing channel. We realize that losing channels is an inconvenience for you, and we work hard to prevent that from happening."
Altitude is countering with a site of its own, accessible via the related entry points DontBlockMyNuggets and DontBlockMy Avs, suggesting that all the combatants are dug in and prepared for a long and nasty battle.
Disputes between content providers and carriers are nothing new, and fans are often caught in the middle. Back in December 2014, for example, DISH threatened to drop CBS4 in the middle of a Broncos playoff run — a possibility the station decried daily on its home page before reaching a resolution. And as recently as July, a beef between CBS and DIRECTV led the channels for affiliates in a dozen major markets, including Los Angeles and New York, to temporarily go dark.
What's unusual this time around is that Altitude — owned by bajillionaire Stan Kroenke, whose Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE) empire also includes the Colorado Mammoth and the Colorado Rapids — is in a standoff with multiple services at the same time. DISH switched off the channel at midnight on August 29, while DIRECTV and Comcast did so on August 31.
As for what led to the impasse, Miller suggests that Altitude is merely seeking financial equity with the agreements the various parties give the channels in their portfolio, such as AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, which is anchored by the Colorado Rockies but also shows games by the NBA's Utah Jazz and the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights.
"We are offering to keep our rates flat to them, and honestly, they're roughly the same as what their own network charges to distribute the Rockies, Golden Knights and Jazz," he insists. "Comcast owns seven regional sports networks and AT&T four, but they have not offered to them what they offered to us. They haven’t because it would put them out of business."
He asks, "Why would you pay your own network full price and full distribution to distribute the Golden Knights and Utah Jazz, but offer a fraction of that to the Avalanche and Nuggets, and to 60 percent fewer subscribers? That makes no sense, and there is not a regional sports network in the country that could survive that. If it costs you $20K to build a car and the dealership is offering to pay $10K per car and encourages you to keep building them...well, what business could survive that? Besides, they are already charging $4 to the subscribers, which is less than we are proposing."
DISH has a very different point of view. The company issued a terse press release in which it asserted that Altitude removed itself from DISH's lineup because of its demand for "unreasonable rates" and compensation related to an estimated number of viewers, who tend to tune in for live games but much less frequently for the shows that fill the hours between them.
"This comes down to Altitude demanding payment on a guaranteed minimum number of customers," maintains Andy LeCuyer, DISH senior vice president of programming, in a statement. "We’re no longer going to support the broken regional sports TV business model that seeks to have the majority of pay-TV customers pay for the few who watch."
As for Trantow, speaking for DIRECTV, she stresses that "AT&T made a fair offer to keep the channel available, but Altitude rejected it. Consumers have made clear they want more choice over the channels they pay to receive in their homes. Our goal is to offer Rapids, Nuggets and Avalanche games to anyone who wants them most at a value that makes sense to our customers overall."
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Altitude hopes those loyal to its teams will pressure all three services to blink. The aforementioned DontBlockMyNuggets/DontBlockMyAvs site includes links to Comcast, DISH and DIRECTV phone numbers and social-media accounts, and Miller hopes folks other than the sports-obsessed will side with Altitude, too.
"KSE has a wide reach and employs a lot of people in our market," he points out. "We are good for the city. We run four sports teams and provide our fans with a great experience to watch our teams at the Pepsi Center, Dick's Sporting Goods Park and on Altitude. They are more part of the community than just a sports network and television distributor. It seems that we need four great businesses like KSE, DISH, DIRECTV and Comcast working hard for our viewers, customers and all who we employ to unite our communities, not divide them."
As a customer of Comcast and DIRECTV, "I love the product," he goes on. "But I would be especially upset that as an Avalanche and Nuggets fan, I'm being told that we don't matter as much as the Golden Knights and Utah Jazz in this region. We have two of the most exciting teams in their leagues going into this season."
The Avs' inaugural 2019 pre-season game is slated for September 16 against the Calgary Flames, with the first game that counts getting under way against the same outfit on October 3. The Nuggets, meanwhile, start their pre-season on October 8 versus the Portland Trail Blazers before taking on the Blazers for real the evening of October 23. At present, the best way to guarantee that you'll see them is to buy a ticket.