NBA Phoenix Suns leave Bally, make local games free under Gray Television deal

The NBA’s Phoenix Suns is the first pro sports team to cut ties with the bankruptcy embattled Diamond Sports’ Bally Sports, announcing Friday a new media rights deal with Gray Television to deliver every locally broadcast game of the Suns and WNBA Phoenix Mercury for free under a statewide distribution model.

Gray said the deal will use the broadcaster’s TV stations KTVK and newly launched KPHE (Arizona’s Family Sports & Entertainment Network).  KPHE will be expanding into the Tucson and Yuma markets over the next several weeks, meaning Suns and Mercury games will be available to nearly 2.8 million households across Arizona’s three media markets.  According to Gray this is “tripling the teams’ reach to fans who have been unable to access the games through its previous distribution arrangement with a non-broadcast regional sports network.”

The Suns’ deal spans up to five years, while Mercury’s is a two-year agreement.

Regular season Suns games were previously available on pay TV through the Diamond’s Bally Sports Arizona channel. The deal with Gray marks a move for the NBA team out of that regional sports network (RSN) cable ecosystem and into OTA broadcasts. The partners are also introducing a direct-to-consumer streaming option with partner interactive video company Kiswe, “to reach every family in Arizona, with or without a pay TV subscription.”

The Sinclair-owned debt laden Diamond Sports group, operator of Bally Sports RSNs, entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year to reorganize and has been in court battling it out with pro sports teams – particularly MLB – over late sports licensing payments. Some had requested the court order immediate payments or to strip Diamond of its TV rights to games, with a federal judge recently ordering the broadcaster to pay at least half of the licensing rights payments that it owes to four MLB teams. RSN models have come under pressure as cord cutting continues, with lower pay TV viewership and related decreases in distribution coming alongside continued rising sports rights costs. Leagues, meanwhile, have been looking for new ways to reach more and younger fans.

Phoenix Suns and Mercury Governor Mat Ishbia said that the deal “checks every box.”

“By going entirely over the air and building our own DTC product the Suns and Mercury will now be accessible to millions more fans in Arizona and globally,” Ishbia said in a statement. “Success comes from new and innovative ways to invest in our players, continue our mission to build a world class organization on and off the floor, and make our product available to as many people as possible.”

The companies also cited significant business impacts, such as increased reach for corporate partners and more value for courtside signage, TV assets and team content by eliminating the need for a pay TV package and costs associated with it.

Pat LaPlatney, president and co-CEO of Gray Television, in a statement said the company is “thrilled this partnership” will connect Gray viewers and the pro basketball teams.

“In a very short window, Mat Ishbia has begun to build a world-class organization both on and off the court. And with today’s announcement, Mat has made good on his promise to focus on the community and put their fans first. We are very pleased to play a part in that effort with our stations in Phoenix, Tucson, and ultimately Yuma,” LaPlatney said.

Still, although the basketball teams announced the deal with Gray, it doesn’t appear that everything is set in stone.  At the end of the announcement Gray noted the agreement is subject to the approval of the NBA and WNBA as well as “any required resolution with the incumbent regional sports partner.”

That incumbent partner would be Bally, and Diamond doesn’t think the deal is legal. NextTV first reported a statement from Diamond saying that Phoenix Suns breached its contract and violated bankruptcy law through the deal with Gray.  

Reached by Fierce, a Diamond Sports spokesperson provided the following statement: "The Phoenix Suns breached our contract and violated bankruptcy law, and Diamond Sports Group will pursue all remedies against any parties that attempt to exercise control over our property interests while we reorganize. This is an improper effort by the Suns to change their broadcasting partner without permitting Diamond to exercise our contractual rights."

Under the new Gray deal, all Suns and Mercury non-national exclusive games will be broadcast between the two stations. Thirteen Mercury regular season games and all available post-season games will air on KTVK, with the remaining regular season games airing on KPHE. The Suns are teed up to have at least 70 games broadcast on Gray stations each season, split with at least 40 on KTVK and the remaining on KPHE.

“Live sports can bring a community together. Combining that with the power of broadcast television and Arizona’s Family, it becomes a multiplier effect benefiting the team, the fans, and the clients,” said Debbie Bush, Vice President and General Manager at Arizona’s Family, in a statement. “Our goal since day one has been creating a model that provides all fans the ability to connect with and cheer on their favorite teams via the distribution method of their choice. We are confident this model will increase fan loyalty and engagement.”

Gray said viewers will also be able to watch the games through a direct-to-consumer streaming option, as well as an over-the-air broadcast product powered by Kiswe. A Suns or Mercury-branded app on smart TVs and smartphones will also offer DTC streaming, with the 2023 Phoenix Mercury season streaming DTC for free.

Article updated with comment from Sinclair.