Comcast was sued Monday by Altitude Sports and Entertainment, a Denver-based channel that airs local sports, including Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets games. The lawsuit, filed in Colorado district court, accuses the cable giant of using its market power to dictate terms to the network that would ultimately drive it out of business.
Altitude has been unavailable since August in Comcast homes in the Denver market and the 10-state Rocky Mountain area the channel normally reaches, as the two entities have been embroiled in a dispute over the carriage fee Comcast pays the network and how the channel is distributed.
Comcast is the dominant TV provider in Denver, providing service to more than half of homes, which, according to the lawsuit, gives it unusual market power in setting prices. At the same time, Comcast also owns several regional sports networks around the country, as well as the broadcasts rights to some sports that air in Denver, including the NHL, which airs on the Comcast-owned NBC family of networks.
Altitude reached a carriage agreement with DirecTV, owned by AT&T, last month, but has not struck a deal with Dish Network or Comcast.
In the meantime, Denver residents with cable through Comcast have not been able to watch the Avalanche of the NHL and the NBA’s Nuggets. Altitude also broadcasts MLS and local lacrosse games and high school sports.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) weighed in over the weekend, tweeting, “Bring our teams back to our screens!” while also publicly releasing a letter he wrote to Altitude asking for a deal to be completed.
Regional sports networks often partner with professional teams, acting as middle men, buying the teams’ broadcast rights and then selling them to a TV provider. The networks also produce game broadcasts and provide pre- and postgame shows for those live games, as well as other content. Disputes between parties have not been infrequent in recent years, as TV consumers have cut the cord in large numbers. While TV providers have sought to pay lower fees and move local sports programming off basic cable packages, networks continue to seek higher levels of distribution. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network in the Washington area is currently not available on Dish Network. Many fans in Los Angeles have been unable to watch Dodgers games for several years because cable operators have not paid to carry the network that airs the team’s games.
According to Altitude’s complaint, though, Comcast is attempting to impose terms – both through lower payments to the network and by moving Altitude off its basic cable package – that it is not imposing on the RSNs that it owns around the country. The lawsuit also notes that Comcast has increased a line item for a regional sports fee for Denver cable customers in recent years at the same it has told the network that customers do not want to pay for the channel.
“Any independent RSN should be scared of what is happening,” said Bill Isaacson, a lawyer from the firm Bois Schiller Flexner, the firm representing Altitude. “If the terms they were asking for made economic sense then they would be asking the same thing of all their RSNs and as far as we know they are not.”
In a statement, Comcast called the lawsuit “meritless.”
“This is a meritless lawsuit in an intensely competitive market where Comcast has no competitive regional sports network and Altitude has multiple distribution alternatives,” Comcast wrote in the statement. “Instead of pursuing baseless litigation, Altitude should engage in responsible commercial negotiations that would allow Comcast to distribute its programming to those customers who want it without driving up costs for customers who do not.”
The majority of RSNs are owned by either Comcast, AT&T or Sinclair Broadcasting Corp., which recently paid more than $10 billion for around 20 channels. Altitude, along with MASN, the New England Sports Network and MSG Network, are among the independently owned regional sports networks.
Altitude is owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, a holding company controlled by Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, Nuggets, Colorado Rapids of MLS. Arsenal in the English Premier League and the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.