The Roller-Coaster That Is Just Trying to Watch Your Team’s Games in 2020

I breathed a really big sigh of relief Thursday night. After much trepidation caused by the roller-coaster that has become Major League Baseball broadcast rights, I found out yesterday that I will indeed be able to watch my Cleveland Indians play baseball on television this season.

Allow me to explain.

Like many (especially younger) people, I don’t have cable in my household. However, unlike some in my demographic, I still find the value in being able to tap into live television. Its absolutely imperative for the sports fan, of course, but further, I legitimately still enjoy the idea of being able to turn on a device and find something airing that I hadn’t considered in advance. (“Oh, look… reruns of Law and Order are on, I’ll put them on while I make dinner…” you get the idea).

Regardless, I continue my foray as a consumer of traditional television now by holding a subscription to YouTube TV. This is after previously having subscribed to the now defunct Sony platform, PlayStation Vue. Sony pulled the plug on at the end of this past January and also sold rights to YouTube TV to advertise to old Vue subscribers. Sony then put together an app that allows YouTube TV to run from my PlayStation 4. Beyond this, my own research suggested that YouTube TV was the most comparable service on the market to my beloved Vue, and I decided to try it out. Its been quite adequate over the month or so that I have had it, but probably a half of a notch lesser quality than Vue was. Overall, things seemed like smooth sailing. I’ve got all the channels I need and more at a comparable price and my wife is happy with our selection too. All is hunky-dory.

Even more recently however, I found out that Sinclair Broadcast Group, who bought every Fox Regional Sports Network in a transaction with Disney not but 8 months ago, had failed to renew their partnership with YouTube TV. This includes both Fox Sportstime Ohio and Fox Sports Ohio, home of the Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively (and Columbus Blue Jackets and Cincinnati Reds for those in that market). My chances of watching either team suddenly looked dashed. All this time and effort put into figuring out what service to select, based on price point and freedom of choice? Wasted. The deadline date came and went. Some disgruntled users presumably canceled their YouTube TV subscriptions. Or at least threatened to. I decided to assess my options but be patient. These things can work themselves out sometimes after all, and long story short, they did. In the process there was quite the scare for users that included running past the expiration date, figuring out a temporary extension to the current agreement and then finally coming to a new deal Thursday, that admittedly still leaves out 2 Regional channels in New York and Los Angeles. For me at least, all’s well that ends well, but I could’ve done without the drama.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to these type of television distribution deals, don’t expect the drama to go away anytime soon. Since I was a child I remember seeing running crawls on NFL games about how I need to call my cable company and make sure I don’t miss out on getting to watch my local team. Fans and viewers have always been beholden to the leagues and their distributors and I don’t see that changing. In fact, I see it getting worse. Why? One word: streaming.

Streaming is supposed to be the great game-changer. Netflix, Hulu and the like have changed the world of television. They have given us more high-quality choices for a manageable price and they done it in a way that’s convenient for the viewer. Its an incredible business plan.

For sports, streaming is just one more variable that the leagues can bargain against their other distributors in order to raise their leverage. Most people would welcome the ease of access that could come with a streaming option for their favorite teams. I’m just not so sure its going to work that way. I look at the way that the leagues are currently delving into digital streaming as a perfect example of why.

The NFL is the only remaining American sport that has nearly all of its games on the major local networks. Other than ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and a handful of Thursday Night games on the NFL Network, if you want to see the NFL you can find it with something a simple as an antenna. In return, the NFL is a ratings goldmine for the networks as well. Its the most watched sport in America. It partially keeps CBS propped up as the country’s most watch network. The NFL isn’t leaving TV any time soon. That much is clear.

However, the NFL does stream certain prime-time games through Amazon. The league isn’t convinced that the tech companies are ready for a full slated schedule, but naturally there’s another pot of money to be made in streaming rights, so expect this access to grow, but grow slowly. The fact of the matter is that if you want to stream the NFL you can… as long as its a select game that you may or may not have interest in. You’re better off not wasting your money and just watching on television, hoping that the NFL doesn’t end up making certain games stream-exclusives like MLB has in the past.

Which brings us to MLB. Manfred and co. have actually opened up the ability for the teams themselves to sell their own in-market streaming rights. This is a great step forward for a league that is generally behind the times, however the outlook isn’t entirely rosy. Out of market games will still require an MLB.tv subscription, a great service if you happen to not live within shouting distance of your favorite team, but otherwise usually fairly uninspiring. MLB has instructed teams to treat their streaming rights like they treat their broadcast rights; essentially decentralized. The Indians could decide they want to stream their audio broadcasts through Spotify, while the Athletics could (and actually have) decided to stream their radio broadcasts through their own audio station. The Orioles could decide they want Amazon to stream their video broadcasts. You get the idea.

But what does this all lead to? If I want to just watch the Indians, maybe I will be able to stream them. It would be a subscription of some sort that I can pay for and access at my leisure. But, that’s assuming the Indians decide to stream video. Its also known that teams are going to have to negotiate with their Regional Sports Networks to adjust their respective contracts since the TV networks won’t be getting every single eyeball anymore. Maybe some teams will strike deals with their current RSNs and keep their streaming services behind paywalls still tied to cable (like the Fox Sports Go app). There’s no guarantee we will be able to pay one flat rate for one small subscription to watch our one favorite team. That’s not to mention that watching out of market will still be tied to MLB.tv for hundreds of dollars, or will still require cable (or an additional streaming service) to watch the Saturday Game of the Week or Sunday Night Baseball on Fox or ESPN.

The point I am trying to make here is that the lack of uniformity in the strategy to move to streaming is going to create more trouble than its worth. If I want to watch Netflix’s Stranger Things, I don’t have to tune into CBS to watch episode 1 and Netflix for episodes 2 through 5 and then a regional network that might get taken off my cable package at any moment to see the remaining episodes. I go to just 1 place and all that I could want is there for me, and more.

Music is another perfect example of this. The music streaming industry has been panned for exclusivity deals between artists and services. Its an incredible technology, but it reaches its true peak when there aren’t business restrictions involved. That’s how streaming (and really, the internet) is supposed to work, and that’s how these sports leagues are likely to botch it. This mistake won’t harm themselves though, they are going to make money hand over fist through their new media but for us- their fans, we will suffer.

The only chance we have (well, 2… the XFL is crazy enough that they might get this right too) is the NBA. They’ve already delved into streaming in some minor, but significant ways. USA Basketball’s run through the 2019 FIBA World Championships was hosted on two web services: ESPN+ and Twitch.tv. Twitch has hosted G-League games as well and is the home of the NBA’s 2K E-Sport league. For those particular products, there’s been no splitting of distribution through completely different services or mediums. Further, the NBA recently signed on with DAZN for its Spanish broadcast rights, leaving a 25-year partnership with Telefonica , a Spanish telecommunications group, in the process. They have immersed themselves face first in a streaming service, and while it wasn’t in America, everyone knows the NBA takes its international footprint very seriously.

The icing on the cake is Commissioner Adam Silver speaking to podcaster and writer Bill Simmons at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and talking directly about a direct to consumer streaming option for the league’s future (the entire interview is below and really worth a listen, streaming information is around 1:01:00 mark). Silver directly mentions the idea of being able to log online and buy particular games, or even particular quarters or waning minutes of games for a flat rate. If you want to watch Cavs vs. Bucks in full, go for it! You’ll probably be able to subscribe to it. If you get done with that contest and you notice Pacers-Bulls is a close game down the stretch, the final 5 minutes can be accessed for say, $1.99. Maybe you can buy a bigger subscription package with access to more games as well. The potential is there, and Silver is publicly talking about the opportunities at his disposal. This is promising, but will take time. The NBA’s television deal with Turner and ESPN doesn’t end until 2023, and the NBA has local television rights taken care of by the team themselves, who knows if they will balk the idea of losing their deals.

Lastly, the NHL will be the first proving ground here, but they likely won’t be a very good one. Their television deal ends with NBC in 2021, but they have yet to really delve into digital streaming at all. Their first step is probably to take a page out of the NFL’s book and start streaming some prime-time affairs. Beyond that, there isn’t much movement.

The NFL will come quickly after them though, and that will be the first true test of how the era of new media will really fair in sports. If any of these leagues can nail it by simplifying and creating convenience for their consumer they stand to make a huge impression on fans old and especially new. Its not a surprise the most popular league with young people is positioned best to take the reigns, but still I’m not sure any of these leagues can look past that next big pay day enough to do what’s best for their fans as well as themselves.

Until then, at least I know I can watch my Tribe and Cavs for now, but not everyone else is that lucky.

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