Jackson Stearns is frustrated. Not by the Nuggets. A lifelong fan, the 35-year-old from the Platt Park neighborhood in Denver has reveled in the team’s march to the NBA Finals. But over the past four years, as Nikola Jokić has blossomed into a two-time MVP and the Nuggets have emerged as a perennial contender, a bitter fight between the team and a leading broadcasting distributor has made it increasingly difficult for fans like Stearns to watch them.
Since 2019, Altitude, the Kroenke family-owned network that airs games for the Kroenke-owned Nuggets, and Avalanche, has been locked in a carriage dispute with Comcast, Colorado’s largest cable provider. The result has been catastrophic television viewership. Last season, the Nuggets finished last in local household ratings and viewership, per Nielsen Media Research, which tracks ratings for the 29 U.S.-based NBA teams. This season, the team saw its ratings increase by 200%, per league data. All that did was bump Denver to 23th in ratings and 27th in household viewership.
Addressing reporters before Thursday’s Game 1 against the Heat, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called the situation “a problem we have to fix.” He noted that his brother, Owen, lives in Boulder. “I hear from his family all the time,” Silver said. He called it “a commercial dispute,” and added, “there hasn’t been a simple resolution to it.”
“It frustrates me,” Silver said. “Because I think it’s a broken economic model where you have demand and the supply isn’t there, especially with a leading No. 1 seed team, Finals-caliber team here in Denver. The notion that local fans can’t watch the games … it makes no sense. It’s on us to fix it.”
To combat Comcast, Altitude has worked to expand its footprint. It’s carried on DirecTV and also announced a new agreement with fuboTV before the start of this season. Neither has the reach of Comcast. In an antitrust lawsuit filed in 2019, Altitude said 92% of all cable customers across 48 counties in Colorado have Comcast. That lawsuit was settled this past March with no resolution on the carriage dispute.
Altitude has encouraged fans to change providers. For many, that is challenging. Rachael Wilson moved to Denver in 2014. She has two boys, ages 9 and 12. Wilson says she pays $170 per month for her cable and internet package, which includes HBO, Paramount+ and Peacock. Cutting cable, Wilson says, would leave her with a $100 monthly internet bill. Adding fuboTV or DirecTV, she calculated, would cost between $70 and $95 per month, depending on the level of service, while potentially leaving her without access to current channels.
Josh Miller lives in Windsor, Colo., a town about an hour north of Denver. Miller is a Comcast subscriber. In 2019, when Altitude was removed from Comcast, Miller used a VPN to watch Nuggets games on League Pass. “The NBA put a stop to that,” Miller said in an email to Sports Illustrated. He wanted to try Evoca TV, a low-cost fledgling service, but it wasn’t available in his area. (Evoca discontinued operations last year.) fuboTV currently does not carry TNT. “Tough to be an NBA or NHL fan without it,” Miller said. Currently, Miller pays $73 per month for YouTube TV, which allows him to watch Denver’s nationally televised games—the Nuggets played 16 games on ABC, ESPN and TNT as another 12 aired on NBA TV—while using illegal streams to watch the rest.
Mark Schlereth, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos who cohosts the morning show on 104.3 The Fan in Denver, says he is among those not interested in breaking up his current cable package. Schlereth calls the team’s inability to cut a deal with Colorado’s largest provider “a failure on the part of the Nuggets.”
“I already have a cable package,” says Schlereth. “I want to turn on my TV and I don’t want to have to stream a service from some illegal internet thing, or something I’m plugging into my computer or I’m plugging into my TV. I'm not interested. The sad thing for me, and a lot of people I talk to on my radio show, is that you’ve got four years of exceptional play and an unbelievable product, and you haven’t truly captured the next generation of potential Nugget fans when a big percentage of the people can’t watch.”
In Denver, the ongoing dispute often gets shrugged off as a league-wide issue. Altitude employees have pointed to New York, where MSG Network, home to the Knicks and NHL’s New York Rangers, have been locked in a carriage dispute with Comcast for two years. Only Comcast services New Jersey and Connecticut. It has no footprint in New York, where MSG remains widely available.
MSG was involved in a carriage battle in 2012. In January, Time Warner Cable, which serviced 2.8 million homes, removed MSG Network. The decision coincided with “Linsanity,” the Jeremy Lin–fueled Knicks surge that captivated New York. The dispute spread to Buffalo, where Sabres games aired on MSG. The fight played out publicly. Andrew Cuomo, then governor, weighed in. Eric Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general, did, too.
After 48 days, the Knicks were back on a major provider.
After four years, it’s unclear whether the Nuggets ever will be.
There’s blame on both sides, of course. In its antitrust claims, Altitude argued that Comcast negotiated in bad faith, offering terms that would put the regional sports network (RSN) out of business. Comcast, which is willing to offer Altitude as a stand-alone service, says Altitude is trying to force the provider to carry the network in perpetuity on the RSN’s terms. Efforts by the NBA to mediate the dispute have gone nowhere. And while league officials, including Silver, have high hopes for a direct-to-consumer option next season, there is little optimism the Altitude-Comcast impasse will get resolved.
“Kroenke Sports controls the teams, the arena, and the Altitude network,” Comcast told SI in a statement. “They could make Altitude available to our customers if they wanted to but have chosen not to do so. We have said all along that we want to make the games available to the fans who want to watch them without making everyone else pay. It’s up to Kroenke Sports to make that happen.”
A Nuggets spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
What’s clear is the team’s brand has absorbed irrevocable damage. “What’s the opportunity cost of a whole new generation of fans that you haven’t collected because you’re digging your heels in over this TV deal?” asks Schlereth. Last June, Josh Kroenke, who serves as president of the Nuggets and Avalanche, said he worried about losing the bond between fans and the team.
“If you have a professional team, you have a public trust,” Schlereth says. “You are obligated to make it as easy for your fans as possible and easy to garner new fans. And you’ve had an unbelievable opportunity to cultivate a whole new generation of fans and you just spit the bit.”
Indeed, a golden age of Nuggets basketball is being watched by an intentionally shrunken audience. Jokić, arguably the greatest player in team history, is being seen by a fraction of a fan base that reveres him. Wilson says her two boys have “lost interest” in the Nuggets. Losing the younger fans, says Stearns, “is a major issue.” Miller says he has not abandoned the team but is frustrated by how challenging it has become to follow them. “Jokić is the most fun Denver athlete to root for in my lifetime,” Miller wrote. “So they’ve kept me invested despite the dispute.”
Respect, or a perceived lack of it, has been a rallying cry for the Nuggets this postseason. For Jokić. For the team. After eliminating the Lakers last month, Denver coach Michael Malone declared any anti-Jokić narratives “silly” and dismissed criticisms of stat padding. Addressing a room filled with reporters, Malone said of Jokić, “Give him his damn respect.”
The Nuggets want respect from the national media.
Meanwhile, the business side of the franchise—and Comcast—continue to show local fans little of it.