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Sunday, May 19, 2024

As Season Looms, How Will MLB Handle TV Uncertainty?

  • If imploding Bally Sports RSNs can’t show games, then MLB will.
  • MLB’s Noah Garden doesn’t expect price changes either.
Shohei Ohtani
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

With MLB Opening Day less than three weeks away, millions of baseball fans are in the dark about where, if, or how they’ll be able to watch games on some of their local, regional sports networks (RSNs).

The future of Bally Sports’ 19 RSNs is up in the air, with owner Diamond Sports Group skipping a $140 million interest payment and stumbling toward an almost-certain bankruptcy.

Bally Sports channels broadcast 14 MLB teams nationwide, accounting for nearly half of the league’s 30 teams. They are the Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Guardians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays, and Texas Rangers

And AT&T SportsNet, which shows the Pittsburgh Pirates, has warned teams it could file for Chapter 7 liquidation.

Bally Sports is in financial peril.

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Diamond Sports Group has TV rights deals with 47 MLB, NBA, NHL, and WNBA teams. But the heat is really on MLB. 

Why? Because the league’s 2023 regular season hasn’t started yet, while the NBA and NHL are nearing the end of theirs, in which case national sports networks like the Walt Disney Co.’s ABC/ESPN and Warner Discovery Sports TNT/TBS take over playoff coverage. 

According to sources, MLB teams also rake in higher rights fees vs. the NBA and NHL clubs. 

With so much uncertainty, Front Office Sports asked Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer, how the imploding RSN business model will impact baseball viewers this season. 

Garden vowed local fans will still get their games via linear TV or streaming platforms, even if MLB has to produce them itself. He expects no change in price points either. 

FOS: With some RSNs heading for bankruptcy and others threatening to cease operations, will TV viewers of these networks get to watch their baseball games this season? If so, how?

NOAH GARDEN: While the situation is unfortunate, it has been something we have been aware of and planning contingencies for quite some time. If any of the RSNs are no longer able to produce local games, we will be in a position to step in to produce and distribute those games with linear and direct-to-consumer options. With our experience operating MLB Network since 2009 and streaming games for more than 20 years, MLB Media has the capabilities, technology, experience, and relationships to produce and distribute games centrally.

FOS: Will the prices that customers pay for their baseball coverage change? Will it go up or down? Or stay the same?

NG: We expect no change here. 

FOS: Many fans love their hometown announcers. Will the team’s broadcasting teams stay the same? 

NG: If we are in a situation where MLB needs to take over, the goal will be to maintain as much consistency as possible, and that includes maintaining the same announce crew. However, there is a lot that still needs to be determined based on how Diamond Sports Group approaches the impending bankruptcy. 

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FOS: How is this situation going to impact blackouts – always a big complaint for fans?

NG: With the extensive changes to fan consumption habits, there are a large number of fans who are not able to watch their favorite team play in their local market. The current model is not sustainable over the long term, and there is no single option available to bring the games to all fans.  

Our priority is to expand the reach of our games to the largest possible audience. If MLB takes over local distribution in any market, our goal would be to allow for both a linear option and a direct-to-consumer streaming service, which would remove the blackout in that market.

FOS: We keep hearing about Billy Chambers, MLB’s new executive vice president of local media. Explain the role being played by Billy and his team?

NG: Billy and his team have decades of experience in all areas of local media, including game production, budgeting, distribution deals, and other matters related to regional sports networks.  

Combining their expertise with MLB Media’s capabilities allows us to be in a position to step in and bring games to our fans locally if any of the RSNs are no longer able to do so.

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