We Need to Talk About Streaming Sports — It’s a Mess

Watching sports is getting more complex and expensive for cord-cutting sports fans.

The collapse of regional sports networks (RSNs) hasn’t been a total fiasco so far in 2023, but it is making life tougher for sports fans who stream. Let’s look at where things are with the RSNs, what it means for America’s big-league sports, and what options cord-cutters have if the RSNs go away.

In this issue:

  • The RSN collapse continues

  • How the leagues are dealing (or not)

  • What streaming options do we have?

Collapsing regional sports networks

Back in March, I wrote about the existential crisis facing RSNs. For years, cable companies had no choice but to include RSNs in their lineups — even though most subscribers never watched. Now that cable companies are hemorrhaging subscribers, that model isn’t working. Making matters worse, the ad market has tightened, so even less money is coming in.

Diamond Sports Group (DSG) filed for bankruptcy shortly after Warner Bros. Discovery announced it will shut down AT&T SportsNet. Comcast recently sold NBC Sports Washington, home to the Wizards and Capitals, to a group of sports investors. Other NBC Sports RSNs may be for sale.

RSN impacts league-by-league

A sudden shift in the sports broadcasting landscape hits each league differently. It’s no big deal for the NFL, for instance, because it relies on national broadcast and cable sports networks for its broadcast revenue.

Major League Soccer is also sitting pretty. They signed a multi-year broadcast deal with Fox Sports and Univision earlier this year. The agreement runs through 2026, when the World Cup comes to Canada, Mexico, and the United States. None of the MLS teams are impacted by the RSN debacle. Thanks to last year’s streaming deal with Apple, MLS could afford to drop regional channels.

Both the NBA and NHL lucked out. Each team signs its own distribution rights, mostly with RSNs. However, the turmoil escalated just as the leagues headed into their respective post-seasons. That gave them the luxury of sitting back and watching how the dust settles.

One sign of what may happen: the NBA’s Phoenix Suns decided they would stop using RSNs and broadcast games on local over-the-air stations again. However, the judge presiding over the DSG bankruptcy rejected the move, ruling that the Suns can’t change their deal until the case gets resolved.

Major League Baseball, however, is in a tight spot. DSG has missed payments. Fourteen teams have contracts tied up in the bankruptcy process. MLB is also more exposed to the decline of RSNs. Reports estimate that the league relies on RSN contracts for 25% of its revenue. The NHL and NBA are less exposed, with only about 15% of revenue from RSNs.

Streaming major league sports is still complicated — and expensive

Over the past several years, the live TV streaming services stood up to the RSNs and refused to force subscribers to subsidize a handful of sports fans. One by one, RSNs vanished from the streamers. Most recently, Mets fans lost access to their RSN as YouTube TV told SNY to take a hike. DirecTV Stream and Fubo are still your best bets — but you’ll pay for the privilege.

Fubo tacks on a $10.99 RSN fee on any plan that includes one RSN and bumps it up to $13.99 on plans with two or more RSNs. The thing is, RSNs are part of every plan. A Fubo subscription will always be at least $11 higher than advertised.

Watching RSNs on DirecTV Stream requires stepping up for the $100-per-month Choice plan (or the even more expensive plans).

If you aren’t interested in those options, you can always buy into each league’s streaming service. Watching the rest of the 2023 MLB season will only set you back $47.99 — a relatively good deal, although it only gets you out-of-market games that aren’t blacked out.

Apple TV has cut its MLS Season Pass pricing for the rest of the 2023 MLS season. A one-time payment of $39 lets you watch every match — no blackouts.

The NFL preseason will get started soon, but be prepared to open your wallet. YouTube TV offers NFL Sunday Ticket for $349. Or you can get it with plain old YouTube for $449 (through mid-September, you can get a $50 discount).

By comparison, an NBA League Pass subscription is a steal — but that assumes last year’s price cut holds for the 2023-24 season. Last season’s pricing started as low as $89.99.

Our takeaway: Sports fans’ lives are more complicated as the free ride ends

Sports fans have benefited from the RSN’s strong-arm negotiating tactics for decades. Reportedly, 80% of cable subscribers never watched an RSN — but they all paid the RSN fees. The other 20% got almost-guaranteed access to their favorite local teams.

Now the free(ish) ride is over. Cord-cutting sports fans must pay for premium live tv subscription services to get their RSN. And that assumes the RSNs stay on the air. There’s nothing guaranteed about that.

I think the leagues should be very worried. Streaming has gotten complex and expensive enough for entertainment content — sports takes it to another level. Eventually, the sports leagues’ broadcast rights cash machine will run dry as consumers just give up and turn to other options.

Pickleball anyone?

The Watchlist

Netflix’s newest big release, They Cloned Tyrone (and probably some other folks), hits the streamer Friday, July 21st.

Stephen Curry: Underrated follows the titular basketball star from his college days to becoming a four-time NBA champion. The documentary hits Apple TV+, Friday, July 21st.

Your favorite erotic magazine is back with another issue at a new publishing company Minx season 2, now on STARZ, airs Friday, July 21st.

Volume 2 of The Witcher season 3 finishes out the story, Thursday, July 27th, on Netflix.

Anthony Mackie and Will Arnett star in Peacock’s adaptation of Twisted Metal, coming to the streamer, Thursday, July 27th.

Harley Quinn is back to cause even more mayhem in the series’ fourth season, releasing on Max, Thursday, July 27th.

Everyone’s favorite angel and devil duo have returned for season 2 of Good Omens, hitting Amazon Prime Video on Friday, July 28th.

Hulu’s Reservation Dogs premieres its third season on Wednesday, August 2nd.

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