There's one thing we know for sure about D.C. United's local TV presence in 2016: all non-national games will be carried on one outlet or another owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. They'll be produced by Sinclair's 18-month-old American Sports Network (ASN).
Okay, fine, that's two things we know. Mostly, I'm happy that we don't have to beg for every game to be televised.
Before I get to my list of demands as the deal between United and Sinclair moves toward reality, a bit more on the Black-and-Red's new broadcast partner. Sinclair Broadcast Group is the largest operator of TV stations in the country. They have a market cap around $3 billion, and they own or operate stations in close to 80 markets covering almost a third of the population. They also just so happen to be based in Baltimore County.
ASN is Sinclair's entree to the world of sports television production. After launching in July 2014, ASN has tried to carve out a niche by capturing the rights to mid-major college basketball and football conferences like the Atlantic 10, Conference USA and the MAC. Last year, they added professional soccer to their portfolio, inking a multi-year deal to air every Real Salt Lake game not already on national television.
Looking at the RSL deal and what we know about D.C. United and the regional market, here are the three big things I want to see from Sinclair:
1. Carriage in other regional Sinclair markets
Like I said at the top, Sinclair Broadcast Group is the single largest operator of broadcast television stations in the U.S. They run a lot of stations, including a blanket over the DMV. In addition to WJLA (ABC 7) in the District, they own WBFF (Fox 45) in Baltimore and control two other Bawlmer stations, WNUV (The CW, ch. 54) and WUTB (My24). They own WRLH (Fox 35) in Richmond and WTVZ (My33) in Norfolk. They also own stations in Lynchburg, Va., and in Charleston, W.Va, as well as stations in both Carolinas and across Pennsylvania.
Basically, Sinclair rolls deep, and that's something D.C. United can and should take advantage of.
This is where Sinclair's deal with RSL can be instructive. Last season, for the first time ever, the Claret-and-Cobalt had their local broadcast carried outside of the relatively modest Salt Lake City market. Sinclair pumped game coverage to their stations in Boise, Reno and Las Vegas, and gave stations in Arizona and New Mexico the option to carry games. This was a huge increase in RSL's reach, increasing the number of households able to watch the team by almost five times over.
We should demand nothing less for D.C. United.
The cost to produce game coverage is the same no matter how many stations air it, so it's completely within Sinclair's incentives to push the signal to as many markets as they can. Indeed, this seems to be their strategy with ASN more broadly - which explains why I was able to watch a nonconference basketball matchup between Georgia State and Southern Mississippi on channel 7.3 last weekend. (More on subchannels in a minute.)
There's no reason I can think of why Sinclair shouldn't air United games across Maryland and Virginia at the least, or why D.C. United and MLS shouldn't allow or even push them to. If the RSL deal is any indication, Sinclair might even look to expand the reach of United games even farther to adjacent states, whether there is another MLS team claiming that market or not.
2. Use subchannels to air every game on WJLA
I know not every game will appear on the main WJLA feed - especially when ABC's college football coverage steps up in the fall - and that several games will end up pushed to News Channel 8, a cable news network that every cable and satellite provider in DC and the close-in suburbs carries. And I'm totally comfortable with that.
But I want Sinclair to take advantage of those digital subchannels I mentioned earlier - often referred to as "dot-two" channels - to put every non-national D.C. United game over the air in the District of Columbia. When a game is pushed to News Channel 8, WJLA should use their two subchannels, 7.2 and 7.3, to air the game to cord-cutters.
If a non-conference game between the third-best team in the Sun Belt Conference and the 13th-best team in Conference USA (per ESPN's Basketball Power Index), neither of which is within 600 miles of our fair city, warrants airtime on one of WJLA's streams, certainly our local professional soccer team does, too.
The same principle should hold for Sinclair's farther flung stations around the region - if there's a conflict on the main ABC or Fox channel, flip the game to a dot-two. Or, in the case of Baltimore, to another station Sinclair controls in the market (which is what they do when conflicts with RSL games arise in the Salt Lake City market).
3. Dave Johnson
According to Steve Goff's reporting, D.C. United has the final say over who will call games. This was also the case with United's previous deal with Comcast SportsNet, as the team paid the on-screen commentary talent. All of which leads me to believe that there should be next to no obstacle to keeping play-by-play voice Dave Johnson and his most recent color commentating partner Santino Quaranta from manning the booth in 2016.
Which, obviously, is exactly what should happen.
Johnson's main gig is as the Sports Director and a morning anchor on WTOP, the region's big commercial news outlet. He calls Wizards games on the radio, among his roughly 700,000 roles, and has been the voice of D.C. United as long as anybody can remember. I am more than hopeful that we'll be hearing "It's in the net!" for a long time to come.
Looking at the precedent set by Sinclair's deal with RSL also supports this notion. They added a third voice to the booth but kept both the play-by-play and the color commentator from the team's previous television deal. Whether they add another analyst or not (they probably shouldn't), they should follow that precedent and keep Dave and 'Tino in the booth where they belong.
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Those are the Three Big Things I want to see come out of the television deal D.C. United announced last week. Think they're reasonable? Is there something else you'd demand? Let us know in the comments.