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The Comcast Technology Solutions office in Denver's Ballpark neighborhood on Nov. 18, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The dispute preventing Denver Nuggets fans from watching basketball games on Comcast turned uglier Monday as Altitude Sports & Entertainment filed a lawsuit calling the cable company “anti-competitive” and trying to eliminate the Denver-based regional sports channel in order to buy it “at a dramatically discounted rate.” 

Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche games vanished in late August and not just from Comcast channels, but Dish Network and DirecTV, too. DirecTV has resolved its beef with Altitude. Dish has not. 

The situation is tough for Altitude, but particularly painful for pro sports fans because, unlike the Denver Broncos, who are sucking wind, the Nuggets and Avs are having thrilling seasons.

Denver-based Altitude said Comcast wants to pay less to air the games even as it charges sports fans more per month to watch the games, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado. Comcast’s demands “made no economic sense and would drive Altitude out of business,” according to the lawsuit, which seeks damages and a jury trial.

The discounted payment, however, isn’t the only reason Altitude is upset. It said Comcast, which owns several other regional sports networks, knows how much it costs for the rights to air professional teams and sporting events. The offer essentially makes it economically unfeasible for Altitude to survive as a business. And most customers in Denver don’t have an alternative in cable providers so Altitude is calling Comcast a “monopsony,” an economic term used to describe a market situation in which a single buyer controls the demand for goods and services.

“The bottom line is this, Comcast came back and offered us 70% less than our last agreement,” Altitude Sports and Entertainment President Matt Hutchings told The Colorado Sun in an interview. “Let me repeat that to you: 70% less.”

Comcast called Altitude’s claims “meritless” since the sports network has choices and partners with multiple distributors, like the satellite TV companies.

“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. Since at this point Altitude has rejected all reasonable offers, we have provided our customers with a credit until we reach an agreement.  We will vigorously defend ourselves against Altitude’s claims,” Comcast said in a statement. 

In the changing era of how consumers watch TV — or increasingly don’t — negotiating what shows up on subscription TV channels has become a contentious affair. In July, CBS went off air for about a month for some AT&T U-verse and DirecTV customers as the network battled for fee increases. Dish customers in 17 markets lost Fox channels in September but saw them return two weeks later

The trend for consumers to watch TV shows, movies and games online isn’t part of the negotiations. But the TV industry has seen the impact as consumers cut the cable cord. Comcast, for example, lost 238,000 paying TV subscribers in the third quarter, although it has gained 379,000 internet customers.

Hutchings said airing the games online isn’t economically feasible yet for the company. 

According to Altitude’s lawsuit, Comcast charged customers $1 a month to get Altitude’s channels in 2015. That’s now $8. That’s more than double Altitude’s proposed fee to Comcast to continue with a new contract, which means “any claims that Comcast would be losing money based on Altitude’s proposed fees are untrue,” the lawsuit reads. 

That fee is being investigated by the Colorado Attorney General.

Gov. Jared Polis chimed in Friday hoping for a quick end to the dispute. He sent a letter to Jim Martin, president and CEO of Kroenke Sports and Altitude Sports, urging him to “complete a deal immediately that allows us to watch our Colorado team at home on DISH and Comcast,” Polis wrote. “Most of us miss seeing them on our home TVs.”

Hutchings said, “We were pleased to see Gov. Polis obviously was aware of the situation and we believe Gov. Polis can play an important role in having all sides come to the table, including Comcast and Dish.”

For its part, Douglas County-based Dish Network said it’s waiting on Altitude.  

“DISH is available to take Altitude’s call any time they want to engage. We urge Altitude to work with us to reach a long-term agreement that is fair to consumers and our mutual viewers,” Dish said in a statement.

In addition to the Nuggets games, Altitude owns the regional rights to air games of Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Mammoth and Colorado Rapids. The games are available online but only for customers of Altitude’s TV partners. Kroenke Sports employs about 3,000 people at its properties in the Denver area, which includes the Pepsi Center and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Kroenke Sports also owns the Avalanche, Nuggets, Mammoth and Rapids teams. 

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...