Altitude Deal Lets Dish Add Brand to Arena

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Exploiting an upstart regional sports network's need for a first distribution deal, Dish Network last week obtained some interesting real estate. Its logo will be plastered on top of the Pepsi Center arena in Denver, cable's historic “capital” — and Littleton, Colo.-based Dish's hometown, as well.

The 52,000-square-foot brand placement will be a very visible outgrowth of the EchoStar Communications Corp.-owned satellite-TV service's multi-year agreement to carry Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network.

Altitude will join Dish's “America's Top 60 plus” tier at launch in September, Dish vice president of programming Eric Sahl said in a telephone interview. He called the Denver market “one of our best markets in the country” but would not say how many of Dish's 10 million subscribers will draw on Altitude.

The deal obviously was crucial to Altitude, which has rights to offer Denver Nuggets National Basketball Association and Colorado Avalanche National Hockey League games, but has yet to ink a carriage deal with the big cable companies in the region. Its principal owner is Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which owns the Pepsi Center and the two teams.

Dish also gains signage opportunities within the arena and on the network's air.

“Dish will be very large part of our launch marketing campaign, whether it's print, billboard or other promotion,” Altitude president Jim Martin said following the press conference announcing the deal.

“I think the deal sets the tone for what will come next,” Martin said. “What the deal does is demonstrate the value of what we're providing, both from content and pricing standpoints.”

Altitude is priced around $1.75 per subscriber per month.

“With two major sports franchises and a lot of college-sports offerings, it seemed like this is a deal we should look at, and be first on if we could get the right deal,” Sahl said.

Sahl said Dish hasn't completed a long-term agreement with Fox Sports Net, which owns the competing Fox Sports Rocky Mountain regional sports network, and he would not reveal when that deal expires.

Both Altitude and Dish said they would aggressively promote the service in the Denver DMA in an effort to siphon away cable viewers.

“We're hopeful that anyone that's passionate about the Avs and the Nuggets will act to subscribe with us right away, to assure that they will have the games this fall,” Sahl said.

Martin also said he's confident Altitude will secure distribution with cable distributors, notably the region's biggest, Comcast Corp. It expects to be in around 1 million homes by September.

“Knowing what we bring to the table as far as content gives me confidence that the other deals will be done and this is just the first evidence of it,” Martin said.

A Comcast spokeswoman would only say that the cable company is in discussions with Altitude and examining options “that keep our all of our customers' best interests in mind.”

The market is shaping up as an interesting competitive test case. Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, which lost the rights to the Avalanche and Nuggets game, recently signed a deal to retain cable rights to Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball games through 2014, and, through a related company, took an equity stake of more than 10% in the club.

At the time, Fox Networks Group president Tony Vinciquerra said Denver was one of the “most strategic” markets for the company to invest in a team.

Fox Cable Networks joins seven other limited partners in the Rockies, including telecommunications companies Clear Channel Communications and Denver Newspaper Agency. That could potentially lead to some cross-promotional possibilities.

At that time, Vinciquerra also noted that he didn't believe FSN Rocky Mountain would be hurt by the loss of the Avalanche and Nuggets, noting the network recently renewed a longstanding relationship with the National Football League's Denver Broncos for preseason coverage and ancillary programming, and holds the rights to Colorado State action and Big 12 football through FSN's national deal.

Meanwhile, Altitude bolstered its programming lineup by reaching a deal with ESPN Syndication Sales for a variety of college sports programming, as well as with the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for a number of local events. Altitude also has the rights to Colorado Springs Sky Sox triple-A minor league baseball games for the summer.

Altitude's bow will not be the only new RSN entry this fall. Comcast SportsNet Chicago — co-owned by Comcast Corp., companies associated with the NBA Bulls, NHL Blackhawks and MLB White Sox, and the Tribune Co., which owns baseball's Cubs, is preparing for a fall debut. CSN Chicago grabbed rights to those teams from Fox Sports Net Chicago, which is majority owned by Rainbow Sports.

The new Comcast service is a derivative of the continuing trend toward clubs forming their own networks, perhaps the most celebrated of which is the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network.

YES, which televises New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets basketball games that previously aired on Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned Madison Square Garden Network and Fox Sports Net New York, was at the center of nationwide scrutiny as the MSO balked at airing the service during its rookie year over expanded-basic positioning.

An arbitrator's decision finally cleared the way for Cablevision carriage in the 2003 season, and a March ruling has wed the parties for six years.

Ironically, Dish Network still doesn't offer YES, which it claimed was too expensive.

Mike Reynolds contributed to this story.

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