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Zach Leonsis talks about Monumental Sports Network’s evolution and the Mystics’ local broadcasting issues

Stewart W. Small

Since 2010, we’ve come to know Monumental Sports & Entertainment as the Ted Leonsis-led company that owns the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, and Capital One Arena. Since that time, Monumental Sports has acquired two Arena Football League teams (the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade), and a G-League Team. But it doesn’t stop there.

Monumental Sports & Entertainment has a major digital media arm called Monumental Sports Network, which hosts the aforementioned teams’ digital content and many other teams as well. In many ways, it’s MSE’s answer to a changing world where people are watching video on their computers and smartphones instead of conventional televisions.

I recently had a chance to interview Zach Leonsis, the Senior Vice President & General Manager of Monumental Sports Network. Yes, Zach is Ted’s son. But in the interview, conducted in late August, we focused on his role specifically, and how digital media is changing the way we consume content.

This interview was split up into two parts. In this part, we talked about Monumental Sports Network itself and how that platform allows them to distribute more team-specific content for the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, Valor, and Brigade than teams in other markets. Leonsis also directly addressed some complaints from people in the D.C. area who were trying to watch Mystics games on television but could not. We hope you enjoy.

Albert: Good morning Zach, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us. How did Monumental Sports Network pivot itself from a primarily blog-oriented platform initially to a video-based platform over the last couple of years?

Zach Leonsis: I'm not so sure I'd call it a pivot, and more of an evolution that was in line with, sort of, our larger media strategy. As it was well publicized and written about, last fall, a little less than a year ago, we went to a brand new, long-term media partnership with Comcast and NBC Sports renewing our rights for the Wizards and the Capitals, with CSN Mid-Atlantic, soon to be renamed NBC Washington.

For Monumental, we received a minority equity stake in the television station, as well as larger rights fees for the Capitals and the Wizards. We also worked with NBC for them to invest in Monumental Sports Network, and really turn it into a true, digital, sister network and complementary package to the larger, regional sports network.

Cord-cutting is obviously a pretty hot topic within the media world, and we think it's important to stay ahead of the curve on a lot of these things, which leads into this new digital direct-to-consumer universe. So, launching Monumental Sports Network with a great institutional partner in NBC Sports who also has a minority equity interest in the platform allows us to really have a media partnership that's built for now, and built for the future. It allows us to distribute more and more live and original programming than ever before.

I think that video is an incredibly valuable medium, and so we're going to continue to grow not only CSN, but Monumental Sports Network, and I think that digital, original subscriptions will only just become more relevant as we move forward.

Albert: Another thing I've noticed with the videos is in regard to your partnership with Kiswe. Kiswe has an experience with Mystics games where there are multiple camera views, so fans could watch the game from different angles than what was being shown on a regular broadcast. Do you see this type of experience being used more for highlights of the Wizards and Capitals in the future? People want to see multiple angles of a big slam dunk, or a spectacular save in a hockey game.

Leonsis: Monumental is a corporate enterprise that has worked with Kiswe in the past for team operations for coaching methods on the bench and in the locker room to show different angles of players in terms of their actual improvement and actual team performance.

Now, we've taken that next step in starting to build that functionality into our live video player within Monumental Sports Network. Our plan is to provide as many live games as possible with the Kiswe multi-camera experience. It's not just a 'choose choose-your-own-adventure, pick-your-own-angle experience, which I think is an incredibly engaging, as it really puts the user in control of what they're watching, but it . It also fosters some clipping abilities, so users can actually tweet out, Facebook, text message, and e-mail specific highlights or plays they see within the actual game broadcast. When they tweet out those highlights, they bypass the subscriber paywall as well. So, I think it's really a unique functionality, and it's one that no other network has right now.

I don't foresee Kiswe and that multi-camera experience being used for Capitals or Wizards games at the moment, but we'll potentially use them for all of our AFL and our Mystics games. We've started to use them, and figure out how to use them in terms of our youth platforms, including basketball and football. We shot our first high school football game this past weekend and used the multi-camera experience. It's a unique activity that users are really going to love, and it's only available on our mobile apps, which you can download on the iOS and Android stores.

Even better, when we put the games up for on-demand viewing, you can use the Kiswe experience again. In fact, when you go onto the Monumental Sports Network app today, you can view the Mystics game on-demand using the Kiswe functionality. We're able to log the Mystics game in an on-demand format 48 hours after it aired and within that time frame you can use it when you watch Mystics games as well.

Albert: We are in this changing time where people are still watching sports on television, but more people are also watch online. We've noticed is that most Mystics games are just on Monumental Sports Network locally, whether the Mystics are playing at Capital One Arena or the road. But, the frustrating part is that sometimes fans want to see those games on TV. Are you trying to get more games onto CSN or for future seasons, as opposed to this season, where there's only a few games there?

Leonsis: To start, I'm sorry to hear about that frustration. It's something that we have heard about. I'll be very transparent in telling you that it's something we're factoring into our plans for next season. Our ultimate goal, here, is to make our fans happy. We also see huge value in regional live-streaming rights.

In response to some of that feedback, we actually waived the geo-fence restrictions for our most recent NBA TV game, which should have been available even if you were within the Washington, D.C. market. We have simulcasted several games on CSN Mid-Atlantic this year, and will look to do the same, perhaps even expand upon that for next summer, as well.

I think we've really tried our best to make Mystics' games as accessible as possible. We really need to look at Monumental Sports Network similar to any other regional sports network in the marketplace. If you were to subscribe to the NHL TV package or the NBA package, Wizards or Capitals games would be blacked out because the regional sports network, CSN Mid-Atlantic, owns those local rights. When you watch on television, whether it be on NBA TV or CSN Mid-Atlantic, you are paying for those channels within a larger cable bill that you pay on a monthly basis.

When we play our games within Monumental Sports Network, we make it available on a variety of platforms. They're available almost universally on ten or more platforms at this point, and we make our games available via a three-month free trial. I don't think that WNBA League Pass offers a free trial at that scale, so for us to offer three months free really makes our games highly accessible through any platform.

We've also delivered more content than ever before. By including the Mystics as part of our larger subscriber package, this also includes our two AFL teams (Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade), our minor league hockey rights (Hershey Bears), our future G-League team, e-sports content, all of our youth programs and high school basketball, football, hockey, lacrosse, and the like. It allows us to create even more programming and insights on the teams we broadcast (including the Wizards and Capitals).

For the Mystics specifically, we’ve unveiled a brand new documentary short called 'Message of the Mystics' earlier in the season. We've debuted game-by-game tune in programming featuring Christy Winters-Scott and Frank Hanrahan, or Dan Nolan.

We've also introduced new content like “Tunnel Time,” with Nolan which consists revealing one-on-one interviews with players:

Then, we've done a lot of programming around the 20th Anniversary of the franchise, as well. We've also delivered games on demand within that 48 hour window afterwards, and now that we've unveiled a new multi-cam user interface, I think that we're delivering a really, really high quality live game experience. A lot of things you frankly, can't do via a linear platform.

So, I definitely hear the frustration about the lack of game availability within the D.C. area and understand it. And I empathize with it. I would encourage people to try a three month trial in Monumental Sports Network, play with the new multi-camera interface, use some of the new, original programming that we're really proud of around the Mystics, and let us know after they've tried it.

In our second part which will be published on Thursday, we turned our conversation toward how Monumental Sports Network will create content for the Wizards’ G-League team, and some thoughts on the Wizards as well.