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Why Streaming Regional Sports Networks Might Not Be the Future for Leagues

Stephen Silver

For many years, regional sports networks (RSNs) were isolated from a lot of the pressures driving cord-cutting and the decline of traditional pay TV. It was nearly impossible, after all, to watch sports without cable. More recently, that has begun to change, with sports fans gaining options, streaming services offering more live games, and even companies like ESPN and Sinclair Broadcasting launching direct-to-consumer (DTC) services. But not every fan is going to pay the price for such services.

A recent report by nScreenMedia looked at how things are changing in that regard and found that as of this year, there are 70 million cable, satellite, and broadband homes in the U.S., down from 71.6 million in 2021 and 101.2 million in 2014.

“As traditional pay TV declines and operators push back on high RSN fees, channel owners are shifting to direct-to-consumer apps,” the report said. “But with high subscription prices, only dedicated fans will pay the price. And in the long run, sports leagues may decide to take a different route to distribute their games.”

Earlier this year, TiVo released a report that found 60% of sports fans sometimes want to watch a sporting event that is not available on any of the subscription sources that they use. Of those who answered yes, 36% said they “just skip it,” while 29% go to a friend’s house to watch, and 25% go to a restaurant or bar to watch. Another 20% said they “subscribe to a streaming service temporarily, then cancel afterward.”

Another option emerged last month with the launch of Bally Sports+, Sinclair Broadcast Group's new direct-to-consumer service. However, the service has quite a few drawbacks. It’s not available in every market, and not even every market that offers the Bally Sports networks.

The service “soft launched” launched in the markets of only five Major League Baseball teams — the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays — with more expected to come later this year. The service will also offer the games of 16 NBA teams and 12 NHL teams when the service rolls out in full this fall.

On the downside, the service is rather very expensive for consumers, with a price point, of $19.99 monthly or $189.99 a year, which is very high for a streaming service. As the nScreenMedia report noted, Bally Sports+ — and other direct-to-consumer services like it, including NESN's recently launched service covering Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins games — are obviously far more likely to appeal more to hardcore fans than casual ones.

Because of that, this shift towards streaming has a chance to hurt the sports themselves, as the casual discovery of games is likely to go down. Considering that the record broadcast rights deals are the main drivers of revenue for most leagues and teams, without a substantial number of subscriptions, it remains to be seen if these types of deals are additive for leagues and teams, or if they end up being a financial drain.

The exception to these types of concerns is obviously the NFL, in which all games are available in one form or another nationwide, and not through deals involving local teams. That league is expected to find a new streaming home for the NFL Sunday Ticket beginning in 2023.

“The future of the RSN model has never been more uncertain. The profitability of the D2C model is unproven. And when existing sports licenses expire, the RSN owners may find that the leagues are reluctant to renew, preferring instead to pursue a more centralized model,” the report said, citing the recent moves by Major League Soccer, in particular, to move towards a league-centric model, as opposed to individual teams controlling their streaming rights.

There are some indications that leagues are thinking that way already. Last October, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, expressed skepticism that the Sinclair DTC model could work, instead implying that the league could launch an in-market streaming product of its own to complement its revolutionary out-of-market MLB.TV.

When Fox divested itself of the former Fox Sports regional sports networks in 2019, following the Disney merger, MLB had made a bid for the RSNs according to reports at the time, but they ultimately went to Sinclair, which turned them into Bally Sports networks around the country.

  • ESPN+

    ESPN+ is a live TV streaming service that gives access to thousands of live sporting events, original shows like Peyton’s Place, the entire library of 30 for 30, E:60, The Last Dance, as well exclusive written analysis from top ESPN insiders.

    The service can be subscribed for $9.99 / month per month or annually for $99.99 / year.

    You will get a daily out-of-market game from MLB, and every out-of-market NHL with NHL Power Play (previously NHL.TV). For NFL Fans, they have an exclusive NFL game, and simulcast select Monday Football games.

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    What it does not include is most live sports that air on ESPN and ESPN2.

    To get access to those channels you have to subscribe to a live TV streaming service. We suggest reading our guide on How to Watch ESPN without Cable.

  • Bally Sports+

    Bally Sports+ is a direct-to-consumer streaming service that offers live games for those who want access to your local Bally Sports RSN without subscribing to a cable or satellite package.

    The service has two plans: a monthly plan for $19.99 a month, or an annual plan for $189.99 per year ($15.83/mo pre-paid annually), after a 7-Day Free Trial.

    With the service, you can stream your local games from 16 NBA teams and 12 NHL teams.

    In addition to NHL and NBA, there are five MLB teams available to stream: Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays. Sinclair has yet to get approval from MLB to stream the rest of the teams that they own the traditional broadcast rights for.

    The service is only intended for those who live in-market to their local teams. If you live out-of-market, you will need to subscribe to MLB.TV (MLB), NHL.TV via ESPN+ (NHL), or NBA League Pass (NBA).

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