Just weeks after The Walt Disney Co., sold its 21 regional sports networks for about $10 billion, AT&T could be getting in on the act, with reports saying the phone giant is mulling the possibility of selling its four RSNs to the highest bidder.
According to a Bloomberg News report, AT&T is considering selling off its AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh, Rocky Mountain and Southwest properties and its Root Sports Northwest channel to help pare down its debt. The four networks have the rights to more than two dozen pro teams -- including NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, NBA's Houston Rockets and MLB’s Seattle Mariners -- as well as college teams and conferences. Although AT&T has not started a formal auction process yet, some pundits believe the channels could fetch about $1 billion.
AT&T is said to want to chop about $8 billion off its $180 billion debt load this year. The phone giant is carrying near-record leverage, most of it associated with its purchase of Time Warner Inc. last year.
Sports consultant Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, said he had no direct knowledge of AT&T’s plans, but if true, the sale of the AT&T RSNs is another indication of a trend toward further consolidation in the industry.
“The acquisition of the Fox RSNs by Sinclair was not the end of this process and there is going to be a continuing consolidation of RSNs, as there is a consolidation of content in general,” Berke said in an interview. “Mass and scale are going to be helpful. If you have only one, two or three RSNs, it’s going [to be] tougher for you going forward.”
After spending heavily over the past five years with its purchase of DirecTV in 2014 and Time Warner, AT&T has been selling off some assets to help take down debt. Earlier this year it sold its stake in Hulu back to the streaming service for $1.43 billion.
The sale would come just weeks after Sinclair emerged the winner in the six-month auction for the Disney RSNs. Sinclair, along with partner Entertainment Studios founder and CEO Byron Allen, agreed to pay about $9.6 billion for the properties. The total deal, including assumed debt was valued at about $10.6 billion.
But that was considerably lower than the $20 billion the networks were initially expected to attract. Live sports is considered to be the last vestige of appointment TV -- and with live news the main catalysts for ad revenue growth -- but there has been some pushback on the high fees RSNs charge distributors. In addition, Sinclair has yet to receive regulatory approval of the deal -- the Justice Department is still evaluating the transaction -- and last month three Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker and Bernie Sanders, sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai expressing concern about the deal.
Still, the RSNs are expected to generate interest from those groups that participated in the Disney RSN auction. Aside from Sinclair, John Malone’s Liberty Media and rapper Ice Cube’s Big3 Networks are considered as possible suitors.
Despite the concerns, Sinclair’s stock soared after it announced its Disney RSN deal. And live sports content continues to win strong ratings.
“This is near must-carry content, it continues to go up in value and distribution deals continue to get done,” Berke said. “The home teams themselves tend to win the night against all television when those games are on live. There are very few content categories that can achieve that level of viewership. I think the category in general is going to continue to generate interest going forward.”