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How Engagement Can Save Regional Sports Networks

New York Yankees
The New York Yankees's YES Network added interactive overlays to its game coverage this past season. (Image credit: ESPN)

It’s been clear for some time that regional sports networks (RSNs) need help. Ownership changes, dwindling viewership and an outdated product, in many instances, have presented regional and team-focused sports networks with difficult prospects ahead if they don’t change their current business models.

In August, Sports Business Journal reported that RSNs are turning toward streaming to reverse declining revenues. But more is needed than simply expanding the accessibility of games via smartphones and connected TVs. They need a total overhaul of their product, with user engagement and monetization at the center of their strategies from here on.

Today, RSNs largely depend on carriage fees for revenue, but the sustainability of this source is rapidly declining. Distribution negotiations are increasingly contentious and cable and satellite providers are no longer willing to blindly pass these costs along to consumers looking for reasons to cut the cord.

Baseball, with an average viewer age near 60 years old, is at the center of this issue given its audience and reliance on RSNs. These networks must become more agile in their offerings, and do so with a heavy emphasis on attracting younger viewers. But that’s a tough job while at the same time trying to maintain current linear TV revenue.

Secondary viewing experiences are one way for RSNs to dip a toe in the audience engagement waters. Without completely scrapping the current TV product, it’s an opportunity for fan interaction and direct feedback on a device (phone) they’re likely to have already. 

These experiences can be as simple as features like stat overlays, trivia and polls, and as advanced as interactive games around the action, chat, video conferencing and live betting. If audiences see RSN broadcasts as immersive experiences that cater to fans in a unique fashion, it’s an immediate improvement on the status quo. YES Network incorporated some of these overlay features this summer as a simple way to create more interaction, and we’ll undoubtedly see more RSNs take similar steps in 2022 and beyond.

Fans also are attracted to RSNs because they’re looking for a customized experience involving their favorite team. It’s already a home-focused booth calling games, and streaming enhances those abilities even further with the option to integrate a variety of team-specific content and features directly into the live game broadcast.

One viewer may want to watch the action with the local radio call, while another may prefer a team-sponsored fan perspective from inside the stadium. Former players and local celebrities can also be integrated into this alternative commentary strategy, similar in many respects to what ESPN is doing now with the Manning brothers during Monday Night Football broadcasts.

Even before and after the game, RSNs can lean into pre-existing shows featuring the local team to continue to speak directly to diehard fans, while also implementing a twist for younger fan engagement. 

Sinclair pivoted the former Fox-owned RSNs into “Bally Sports” to more naturally integrate sports betting content, yet a good portion of the content on Fox Sports Southwest has little to do with the pro teams in the region. While you could take an existing show on the network like Mavericks Insider and build it into an immersive fan experience, there’s a case to be made for repurposing the hours of paid programming, local high school highlights and American Ninja Warrior rerun slots for specialized shows that connect directly with fans in real-time.

John Ganschow, CEO, StreamLayer

Gues blog author John Ganschow is CEO of StreamLayer. (Image credit: StreamLayer)

Turning RSNs into hubs that connect fans to this sort of hyper-personalized experience through streaming is a way to be a value-add that also avoids eliminating anything from the main broadcast, where the networks’ bread is still buttered. The fact that you’re seeing Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association push back on RSNs now (via recent statements and talks of launching a competitive service) shows that current approaches toward audience acquisition and retention just aren’t enough.

RSNs are at a crossroads, with a shrinking amount of time left to adapt their current models to the new opportunities in front of them. Integrating social commerce, in-game betting, alternative commentary and other fan-centric revenue-generating features directly into the broadcast experience is a way to engage streaming viewers and modernize their business. Change is always difficult, but there are big rewards ahead for those RSNs who move quickly and decisively along this path.

John Ganschow

John Ganschow is CEO of StreamLayer, a video-rights management company that works with sports rightsholders to elevate streaming experiences.