Now Streaming: Baseball’s Next Move
It’s been a season of flux of Major League Baseball, even if the 2023 campaign is less than a month old. From the breakdown of the regional sports networks (RSNs) that have been integral to its broadcasting, to a raft of rule changes meant to speed the game, 2023 is undoubtedly a year of monumental change for the sport, and more could be ahead.
We recently wrote about the potential the sport has for attracting a newer, younger audience as a result of these forced changes. But what does that mean in practical terms? How will fans, who appear to appreciative of the extant shifts, connect with their teams?
The primacy of the RSNs made sense over the course of a long season — unlike the NFL, or even the Premier League, with 162 games, each is less of an event. The desire of the casual fan to tune in to each of these games was approaching zero, and the fans that did want to follow every pitch would be all too eager to part with the money necessary to have access to an RSN through their cable or satellite provider.
A new approach
But now, with the collapse of the RSNs, a new approach is necessary. Bally Sports, who have the rights to nearly half of the league’s teams, has announced bankruptcy proceedings, and has already begun to cut rights fees to teams this season, prompting legal action from MLB.
But even as the RSNs struggle, their continued viability may have been a moot point. All too frequently, through a result of “cord-cutting,” or moving to watching sports online rather than through traditional channels, access to the RSNs simply wasn’t possible. If a game was nationally broadcast, on TNT, for example, it would be included on something like YouTubeTV, but if — like the majority of games — it wasn’t, those aforementioned diehard fans would be out of luck.
The next logical move, then, would seem to be a comprehensive streaming service. The NFL has moved in that direction by awarding its Sunday Ticket package to YouTube, and Apple and Major League Soccer have done the same, to rave reviews. Commissioner Rob Manfred has been unapologetic that this is the goal, saying in February, “I hope we get to the point where on the digital side, when you go to MLB.tv, you can buy whatever the heck you want.”
Controlling the game… eventually
Like Apple and MLS, using MLB.TV would be ideal — the site already hosts out-of-market games, meaning a Yankees fan in Florida or a Cubs fan in Utah can follow their teams, just not their local teams. Since baseball, like most sports, often has a strong sense of regionalism. Failing to connect these teams with their fans would be a grave misstep, but MLB is lacking that ability right now in many regions owing to the structure of the RSNs.
Even with Bally’s struggles, this potential change is still years away. The RSNs hold the rights for several years, but there is hope — the Red Sox, for example, do have a streaming option through NESN, their RSN, and the Yankees are expected to launch that as a choice as well. Even with real change still in the future, MLB has the chance to act decisively now.
With Bally and other networks struggling, MLB could purchase the rights to those teams’ broadcasts out of bankruptcy. It could then acquire, as contracts expire with other teams, the rights of all of the teams’ games. Even if a sharing of the revenue would need to be negotiated — the Yankees own YES, the network that broadcasts their games, for example, the league has shown in its rule changes that it’s unafraid to take big steps, a stance that ought to excite baseball fans everywhere.