Altitude Sports Sues Comcast in Antitrust Lawsuit

On Monday, Altitude Sports & Entertainment filed a lawsuit against Comcast (CMCSA), alleging antitrust violations. However, Dish Network (DISH) was left out in this lawsuit, and DIRECTV has a favorable agreement with Altitude Sports. Further, Altitude Sports accused Comcast of using its monopoly powers, expressing concern that the cable giant would push it out of business. Let’s take a closer look at this controversy.

Comcast versus Altitude: The legal dispute in detail

The dispute between the massive Comcast and the Denver-based sports channel Altitude Sports has been brewing over the past several months. Since then, Altitude Sports has been inaccessible to Comcast subscribers in Denver. Despite a series of negotiations between the two companies, Altitude Sports finally took legal action against Comcast on November 18.

Altitude Sports broadcasts regional sports events and games, notably the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Comcast is the leading cable TV provider in Denver, serving the majority of the residents. According to the lawsuit, Comcast holds immense power in deciding and implementing prices. Moreover, Comcast owns various other local sports networks across the US, in addition to the transmitting rights of some sports events that are broadcast in Denver. This includes NHL games, which are broadcast on the Comcast-owned NBC networks. As a result, this pricing issue is causing financial stress to Altitude Sports in covering its costs.

According to the lawsuit, the demands made by Comcast “made no economic sense and would drive Altitude out of business.” The lawsuit also states that Comcast wants to pay less to broadcast these local games, while it is charging Altitude’s subscribers a premium monthly fee to watch these local games.

Recent proposition leading to the dispute with Altitude

Let’s look at the recently proposed arrangement between Comcast and Altitude Sports that led to this dispute. According to this proposal, the transmitting rights to Nuggets and Avalanche games meant a 50% cut when compared to the formerly accepted contract terms. Moreover, this would include Comcast withdrawing Altitude Sports from its main packages, including its Expanded Basic Package.

The lawsuit noted that the removal of Altitude Sports from Comcast’s packages led to a sharp decline in its subscribers from 70%–85% to 15–20%. The absence of an agreement satisfying both parties led to the dispute.

Challenges to Comcast

Comcast is facing challenges from everywhere, and this is not its first war with regional channels. In October, Comcast intended to remove the Starz channels, owned by Lions Gate Entertainment, from its packages. According to Lions Gate Entertainment, the channels would be removed starting on December 10. In November, Comcast was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court over an allegation that the company rejected airing Entertainment Studios Networks’ channels due to racial bias.

Moreover, Comcast is shifting channels among its various packages to get the most out of its pricing. In October, Comcast displaced AT&T’s (T) Turner Classic Movies from its Basic Package to its Sports Entertainment package. On the downside, Comcast can lose its customer base, with the company opting out many channels from its packages. In the third quarter, Comcast lost 238,000 pay-TV subscribers.

On the one hand, regional channels such as Altitude Sports want to charge more money to at least break even, since they are facing difficulty retaining their customer base. On the other hand, pay-TV players such as Comcast are keen on optimizing costs. Also, they don’t want to pass these costs along to their customers, resulting in higher prices.

However, media giants such as AT&T TV Now and Dish Network’s Sling TV enable their non-cable subscribers to watch these channels online. As a result, these strategies from its peers make cable TV programming unappealing to Comcast.

Altitude’s relationship with Dish and DIRECTV

Although Altitude Sports has concerns about Comcast, its relationship with AT&T’s (T) DIRECTV and Dish Network (DISH) has remained healthy. Altitude entered into a multiyear carriage rights agreement with DIRECTV in October with as-yet-unannounced terms. Although Altitude hasn’t reached an agreement with Dish Network, it didn’t include Dish Network in the antitrust lawsuit.

“We have been able to work out a reasonable deal with AT&T DIRECTV and their customers in the Denver region are watching our coverage,” Altitude CEO Matt Hutchings said. “The difference between the two is that Comcast refuses to negotiate market-based fair terms.”

How are the stocks behaving?

On November 18, the day the lawsuit was filed, Comcast stock was marginally up by 0.11%. On the other hand, Dish Network stock shot up 2.33%, partially owing to Altitude excluding Dish from the lawsuit. This should have been a major relief for Dish’s investors. AT&T stock was up just 0.33% and didn’t seem to be affected by Monday’s events.

On November 19, AT&T and Dish stocks were down more than 2% in the early trading session, while Comcast stock is still in the green. However, AT&T later fell more than 4%, and Dish dropped more than 2.5%. On a year-to-date basis, Comcast has earned returns of nearly 30%, outperforming the S&P 500’s returns of more than 24%.