Sta-reeem Battah!

Bally’s struggles puts MLB’s 2023 season up in the air for streamers ⚾

Sinclair Broadcast Group took a swing and a miss by taking on $10 billion in debt for the old Fox regional sports networks (RSNs). Last month, the re-badged Diamond Sports whiffed an interest payment, starting the march toward bankruptcy. As of opening day, here’s what we know about the state of play.

In this issue:

  • Exclusivity made RSNs a hot commodity

  • Diamond Sports Group made some poor choices

  • How will MLB air moving forward?

RSNs - great for cable, not for fans

Back in the day, watching baseball was pretty simple. You caught whatever games the big networks broadcasted or watched your home team play on a local channel. Until team owners quickly figured out that cable channels would pay more, and we got regional sports networks like AT&T SportsNet and Fox Sports Networks bundled into our cable subscriptions.

It was a great business model. Major League Baseball teams cut lucrative deals, giving these cable channels exclusive broadcast rights. The channels made bank on advertising and the carriage fees they charged cable companies, and cable companies got their own cut through higher subscriptions and by tacking on regional sports fees.

And baseball fans? Well, they got to watch their home teams play. But not if the game fell under arcane and convoluted blackout rules. That is, of course, if they paid through the nose for a cable subscription. Still, it was cheaper than season tickets.

Then things fell apart.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

The current mess goes back to Fox’s decision to put its sports and entertainment business on the auction block. Lucky for them, they landed a $71 billion sale to Disney. To please federal trust-busters, Disney sold off the Fox RSNs. With a $10 billion price tag, most went to Sinclair-owned Diamond Sports Group. They then sold naming rights to casino operator Bally’s to create the Bally Sports RSNs.

Everything looked great. Diamond now controlled a big chunk of sports on TV, so it told cable companies, satellite companies, and streamers there was a new boss in town and raised its prices. Desperate to hold onto their one differentiator, cable and satellite companies agreed. Most streamers dropped the Bally Sports RSNs. DirecTV Stream was the one exception, but it got the RSNs as part of DirecTV’s satellite business.

Earlier this year, sports-centric streamer fubo (formerly fuboTV) returned to the table. It brought Bally Sports back — and then stuck it to their customers. Subscriptions are up $5 and everyone has to pay regional sports fees of at least $11.

You call that a Valentine’s present?

But fubo won’t save a dying business. Going into debt to buy cable channels amid declining pay TV subscriptions turned out to be a bad move. Who knew? Sinclair distanced itself from Diamond in 2022, prompting speculation about the struggling sports group.

We found out on Valentine’s Day how true those rumors were. Diamond was supposed to make a $140 million interest payment — but didn’t. Their deal with creditors gave them a month to figure things out, but they filed for bankruptcy instead.

Though they have enough cash to keep broadcasting, the Bally Sports RSNs face an uncertain future.

MLB for the save?

When news of the missed payment broke, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred openly discussed a streaming-friendly path forward. The teams would terminate their contract with Diamond, allowing the league to take over TV production and sell broadcast rights to the cable companies. The new agreements could let people stream home games blackout-free with an MLB.TV subscription.

Diamond will owe rights fees to most of the affected teams by the end of April. Missing those payments could trigger the MLB’s post-Diamond plans. But that depends on a lot of lawyers playing ball.

Our takeaway: Blackout-free only in 2023

Obviously, Diamond’s collapse is a mess. Manfred’s vision of fan-friendly streaming sounds promising, but is he the one calling the shots? Diamond’s deals are with each team’s owners. I’d expect them to accept MLB-produced broadcasts as a way to save the 2023 season. But beyond that, they will jump at a better offer.

The Watchlist

Live-action adaptation of the classic anime series, From Me to You: Kimi ni Todoke, is available to stream on Netflix right now.

Need to get up to date before the final few games of March Madness this year? Take a peek at The Gist College Sports edition! This free newsletter offers quick stats and updates for all things college sports so you never miss a second of the action.*

Mystery drama series The Power, starring Toni Collette and John Leguizamo, drops onto Amazon Prime Video this Friday, March 31st.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston are back to solve another case in Murder Mystery 2, sleuthing onto Netflix Friday, March 31st.

The newest rom-com to hit screens, Rye Lane, skips onto Hulu, Friday, March 31st.

Tetris, a film about the creation of the iconic game and its place in the Cold War, fits neatly into Apple TV’s library Friday, March 31st.

Biographical documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, tells the story of the actress’ life and how the media sexualized her, releasing onto Hulu Monday, April 3rd.

*Indicates sponsored link.

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