Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told team owners this week in meetings in Orlando, Fla. that he wants to launch a league-owned direct-to-consumer streaming service in time for the 2025 pro baseball season.
“Realistically, my target to having a digital package I can take to market would be for the ’25 season,” said Manfred, who was quoted by The Athletic.
To pull it off, Manfred believes he needs the streaming rights to around half of MLB's 30 clubs. “I think you need to be in the 14 and growing mode,” he added.
For years, the league's MLB.tv platform has let fans stream out-of-market games. But to follow their local teams' games on TV, they've had to subscribe to a pay TV operator that has their club's affiliated regional sports network.
Manfred's plan would seem throw a curveball at bankrupt Diamond Sports Group, and its recently filed restructuring plan, aided by a $115 million investment from Amazon, to keep the Bally Sports regional sports networks out of liquidation.
The disclosure of Manfred's plan isn't entirely surprising, given his acrimony for Diamond's parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, and its executive chairman, David Smith.
What Happens After 2024?
Last week, Diamond announced in a court filing that, through mediation, it had reached agreements with the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians to show their games on linear TV via Bally Sports channels through the 2024 MLB season.
With these deals, Diamond has locked up linear and DTC rights for all of its Bally Sports-affiliated NBA and NHL teams through the remainder of the ongoing pro basketball and hockey seasons. It also has linear rights for 12 MLB teams -- and additional DTC rights for five of that dozen -- for the 2024 MLB campaign.
So what happens after the MLB regular season ends in September?
As part of its ongoing quest to secure rights to live sporting events for Amazon Prime Video, Amazon invested $115 million in Diamond's restructuring, hoping to gain access to local MLB TV rights in 2024 and beyond.
'Hats Off to Amazon'
At the Orlando owners meetings, Manfred seemed to indicate that MLB wasn't involved in the discussions between Amazon and Diamond.
“Hats off to Amazon,” Manfred said Thursday (again, per The Athletic). “I think they, for them, made a really interesting deal. They essentially have — from now, until the time that there is a plan that is approved [by the court] that allows Diamond to exit bankruptcy — an option to try to figure out if they can acquire digital rights that would be enough to make a viable product. If they do that, I suspect they put the $100 million in. If they don’t, I suspect they don’t.
“A free option is a great thing if you can get it," Manfred added.
What Teams Would Be in MLB's Package?
To date, Diamond has only secured DTC streaming rights for only five MLB clubs -- the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Florida Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.
MLB currently oversees local distribution, including DTC streaming, for the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, which were both cut loose from Bally Sports during the 2023 season when the clubs wouldn't agree to Diamond's restructuring terms.
MLB also controls the local sports TV destiny for the Colorado Rockies. That team's RSN shuttered last year when owner Warner Bros. Discovery decided to exit the regional sports channel business.
Beyond those three teams, Manfred and MLB will have to find 11 more clubs willing to gamble that the league's DTC platform can outperform whatever local-sports TV arrangement they already have in place.
There's Also the Big Sports Streaming JV to Consider
While he ponders the local TV future of his teams, Manfred also responded to the big announcement this week from Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery that they're pooling their linear sports channels in new virtual MVPD offering.
Manfred said MLB wasn't given a heads-up about the deal ... but that's OK.
“I see that development as positive,” he said. “I think it is another place that’s going to need to buy rights in order to make the platform go, and compelling, and I think it’s good to have another buyer. I think it’s particularly good for us — you think about it, it’s our three biggest partners, right? All positive.”
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Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!