Since they purchased a large regional sports network in 2020 and rebranded it as Bally Sports in 2021, the Sinclair Broadcast Group has had its eye on building a comprehensive regional sports streaming channel.
But will the leagues they currently have relationships with want to see that vision become a reality?
This week, The Athletic reported that negotiations between Sinclair and their division Diamond Sports Group, which controls the Bally Sports regional channels, have revealed differing views on what the future of regional sports broadcasting will look like.
Sinclair Paid $9.6 Billion For Regional Network
Many media observers were shocked when Sinclair paid almost $10 billion (actually $9.6 billion) for what was formerly known as the Fox Sports regional network. The deal brought 42 teams under the umbrella for Sinclair, 16 in the NBA, 14 in MLB, and 12 in the NHL. Bally Sports signed a 10-year naming rights agreement with Sinclair in November of 2020 for an undisclosed amount. But regardless of what Sinclair got in the deal, there are many who question the figure they paid to get the networks, as it straps the company with a lot of debt.
That’s one of the reasons why officials from MLB, the NBA, and NHL, might be wary of entering in an arrangement with Sinclair for a streaming channel option. Though a streaming channel is needed for the regional networks to meet fans where they are.
Cord-Cutting Creates Need For Streaming Channel
For several years, the number of cable subscribers has shrunk, jeopardizing the golden goose for the four major professional sports leagues: broadcast rights dollars.
Younger fans are less likely to have cable television, which means they won’t have access to Bally Sports as their source for regional sports programming. Where will fans of the Diamondbacks watch their team? They tune into Bally Sports Arizona. But if they don’t have cable TV, they can’t watch it.
In addition, some fans in other regions want the option to see teams from around MLB, the NBA, and NHL. Currently, they can’t do that on TV due to blackout restrictions or because they are not in the broadcast territory of the team they are interested in.
Sinclair/Bally want to create a streaming channel that can be sold on a subscription model and offered to fans across the country. But the leagues, especially Major League Baseball, may have different ideas.
Are Streaming Broadcast Rights Different Than Cable Broadcast Rights?
An issue that may muddy the waters as Sinclair and the three professional leagues negotiate a new broadcast deal, is the definition of broadcast rights. According to The Athletic, Sinclair seems to think they have deals with enough teams already to create a channel and broadcast games wherever they want via streaming.
Not so fast, says MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The accurate statement would be that Sinclair does not have enough digital rights from enough clubs in order to have a viable direct-to-consumer product,” Manfred is quoted as saying to The Athletic. “They certainly have the other set of rights (referring to cable), they’ve talked a lot about gambling rights, they don’t have those either.”
That sounds ominous. A broadcast partner says one thing, and the league says another. Sinclair clearly feels they have deals in place with individual teams that give them rights to stream games. Manfred, speaking for his league, and Adam Silver for the NBA, say different. Neither MLB nor the NBA is going to give away anything they think has tremendous value. Especially rights to broadcasts that are only getting more popular every year.
Will MLB And The NBA Create Their Own Streaming Regional Sports Product?
Back in 2000, MLB created MLB Advanced Media (known by the league as “BAM”). BAM was started with a $4 million investment from each of the 30 MLB owners at the time. Since, it’s grown into an asset worth more than a billion. Gradually BAM built the infrastructure to host each of the 30 MLB team websites, and create a media hosting company that served streaming clips of MLB games and offered subscriptions of all of their games.
Given their track record of traditional success, BAM and MLB could decide to create their own regional sports networks to produce the broadcasts of their games in local markets. Could they align themselves with the NBA and NHL to invest in a streaming “super” sports channel for fans?
That’s a nightmare scenario for Sinclair, who believe that they could create a market for streaming regional sports networks (RSN’s) at between $15 and $20 per month.
Many younger viewers, who rarely watch traditional TV and may have never had cable TV, crave the ability to watch their local sports teams easily on any device over the internet, or to watch other RSN’s if offered. It’s possible that the audience for a streaming RSN would eventually dwarf the cable model
With that many viewers and dollars at stake, sports fans can be sure there will be a lot for Sinclair and the leagues they are partnered with, to fight over.