The only television network devoted to coverage of Washington-area sports is shifting resources away from the region’s most prominent team, a sea change for local sports fans that could be a sign of what’s to come as the regional sports network model falters nationwide.
NBC Sports Washington’s website, meanwhile, has not posted a new article about the Commanders in more than a month. As of last season, the network had four reporters covering the team and regularly visiting the team’s practice facility in Ashburn during the season.
A spokesperson for Monumental said that the network attempted to work out a new deal with the Commanders but the two sides could not agree on terms. As for future coverage, Monumental said it will focus its digital efforts on teams for which the network has broadcast rights.
A Commanders spokesperson wrote in a statement: “We appreciated the partnership with NBC Sports Washington, and understand that its new owner, Monumental Sports, is focusing its coverage on basketball and hockey. As the content/RSN landscape evolves, it gives us an opportunity to take a holistic look at our content distribution strategy.”
Commanders preseason games will air this coming season only on NBC4 rather than on both networks, as in the past. The pre- and postgame coverage plans for the regular season are not yet clear. Sports Business Journal first reported that the team and network could not reach a new deal.
Instead of Commanders coverage, Monumental is investing in a network rebrand and more coverage of the teams that it owns. It plans to spend $20 million on production facilities inside Capital One Arena that will house new studios and help the network broadcast alternate feeds and launch new linear and digital shows. At least some of that investment will focus on gambling content; a sportsbook opened at Capital One Arena in 2021. (Axios first reported on the $20 million investment.)
The changes at NBC Sports Washington come as the future of regional sports networks around the country is in flux. Long a staple of the cable bundle, the networks are now facing pressure thanks to expensive rights fees to broadcast games combined with cord-cutting that has led to shrinking revenue. Diamond Sports Group, which owns the rights to 42 MLB, NBA and NHL teams, filed for bankruptcy this month, and Warner Bros. Discovery also told several teams it will exit the RSN business.
The region’s other RSN, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which broadcasts Nationals and Baltimore Orioles games, has cut costs in recent years as people dropped their cable subscriptions. But Zach Leonsis, president of media and new enterprises at Monumental, told Axios this week: “Overleveraged operators are experiencing distress, but that should not be conflated with the incredibly strong and stable demand for local sports rights.”
Ted Leonsis, Monumental’s CEO, is also a potential bidder for the Nationals, who have been for sale for about a year. NBC Sports Washington has always had programming gaps during the summer months without live basketball and hockey, and there has been interest from fans and media executives in getting the Wizards, Capitals, Nationals and Orioles on the same network. Any would-be owner of the Nationals would, however, have to reach a deal with the Orioles to gain control of the Nationals’ local television rights.
NBC Sports Washington was launched in the 1980s and has gone through several iterations of ownership and branding, from Home Team Sports to Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic to NBC Sports Washington. Washington’s NFL team has always featured heavily in the network’s coverage.
The network used to air a nightly local “SportsCenter”-style show that often featured live reports from Ashburn during the NFL season, as well as draft and training camp specials. And a series of daily weekday shows over the years has focused exclusively on NFL reporting and commentary, including personalities such as former player Brian Mitchell and former announcer Larry Michael. Last season, Julie Donaldson, a Commanders employee, hosted a regular weekday show about the team on NBC Sports Washington.
Commanders postgame coverage drew among the network’s best ratings for any non-live game programming, and according to multiple people familiar with the network, Commanders digital traffic outdrew that of other teams. The Wizards’ TV ratings have been among the worst in the NBA.
Not all Commanders coverage is disappearing from all of the network’s platforms. JP Finlay, a reporter and local radio host, released a new episode of the popular Washington Football Talk podcast on Wednesday, suggesting that despite the shift in priorities, at least some Commanders coverage will continue, at least for now. The Commanders are also pursuing a sale and it remains possible that a new owner could reassess the team’s relationship with Monumental.
Nicki Jhabvala and Scott Allen contributed to this report.