One month after the 2021 Major League Baseball regular season threw out its first pitch, virtual multichannel video programming distributors YouTube TV, Hulu Plus Live TV and Fubo TV are still without Sinclair Broadcast Group’s regional sports networks.
About 19 of Sinclair’s RSNs, rebranded under the Bally Sports Networks name this month, went dark to YouTube TV and Hulu Plus Live TV customers in the fall (Fubo TV dropped the channels in January 2020), but there were hopes that the networks would return in time for opening day of the Major League Baseball regular season. That didn’t happen.
Pricing appears to be the reason for the decision to do without the channels, and apparently there has been little movement on either side regarding negotiations.
In addition to the Bally Sports channels, YouTube and Hulu also passed on carriage for another RSN in which Sinclair owns a minority interest -- YES Network, TV home of the New York Yankees. Marquee Sports Network, owned by the Chicago Cubs and also minority-owned by Sinclair, reached a carriage deal with Fubo TV on March 31, but still doesn’t have a deal with YouTube TV and Hulu.
Despite the impasse, the networks have enjoyed strong ratings, according to people familiar with the channels. The YES Network, which launched a new authenticated app in March, said its opening week TV audience was its largest in nine years.
YouTube dropped the Sinclair RSNs in September, Hulu in October and Fubo TV in January 2020. Back in March, Sinclair said that it was working toward an agreement with the streamers, but so far that hasn’t been successful. Sinclair did not return a request for comment.
Sinclair is scheduled to release its Q1 financial results on May 5, so they are likely to field a few questions about the dispute on its quarterly conference call with analysts.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, Sinclair and the streamers haven’t met for months. And as the impasse continues, the prospect that a deal will be reached this baseball season, seems farther from reality.
At the beginning of the month, sports consultant Lee Berke, CEO of LHB Media & Entertainment, guessed that maybe one of the streamers would reach a deal with the Sinclair RSNs, but not all of them. His reason: streamers just don’t see sports as the glue that holds the bundle together, like traditional distributors do.
At the time, Berke said that regular season baseball would be the litmus test for the streamers. If their subscriber rolls weren’t materially affected by the loss of games, then they probably could do without the channels all-together.
“It’s difficult to see all three of them coming back in,” Berke said a month ago.
Today, his mind hasn’t changed.
“I don't think it’s a good sign for the RSNs,” Berke said Friday (April 30) of the continued impasse. “That being said I don’t think a month alone will do it,” adding that baseball fans get more engaged later in the season as pennant races heat up. So there is still some time left to figure out the true impact of not carrying the networks.
YouTube TV, Hulu and Fubo TV are not devoid of sports without the Sinclair RSNs. The vMVPDs carry ESPN and MLB Network, TBS and TNT that carry national baseball games. They just don’t have all the games of all the local professional teams, which are primarily carried on RSNs.
“They [the vMVPDs] are trying to see if that allows them to skate by,” Berke said. “You’ve got large numbers of younger fans that want to see these games through their virtual MVPDs. But if it’s not in numbers large enough or compelling enough to make them change their strategy then they are going to continue to go forward with it. The crunch point is going to be in the next couple of months.”
Sinclair purchased the RSNs in 2019 from The Walt Disney Co. for about $10 billion. Dish dropped the Sinclair RSNs in July 2019, shortly before it closed the Disney deal, and since then pay TV distributors have increasingly resisted big price increases from RSNs. Although Sinclair has carriage deals for the RSNs with most major traditional distributors, the streaming channels, which have a younger audience, are starting to fight back.
YouTube TV has been in the news lately for a different battle with streaming box maker Roku. Today (April 30), YouTube let its Roku deal expire.
Current YouTube TV customers would continue to be able to access their subscription via the Roku device. They just won’t be able to download the YouTube TV app from the Roku store, which would prevent new customers from signing up via Roku. Access to the free YouTube internet app would be unaffected.
Some fans have taken to social media to voice their displeasure, with several tweeting that the Roku impasse, coupled with dropping the RSNs could be the last straw.
“Between this and losing the regional sports channels you used to have, and that I wouldn't have switched to you if you didn't have - Fix these problems or I'm gone,” said one YouTube TV user.
So far, Sinclair doesn’t seem to have taken the usual path of a programmer in similar disputes -- asking fans to put pressure on the distributor either by calling and emailing the distributor or switching providers. The Bally Sports Twitter feeds are mainly focused on game highlights, although Sinclair did set up a dedicated microsite -- www.getmyhometeams.com -- in December that directs fans to other providers like AT&T TV, DirecTV, and Spectrum (depending on the market) to get access to the RSNs. Sinclair has had a reputation of being an aggressive adversary in distribution disputes -- look back on any of its major retrans battles for proof of that -- so its current stance is a bit unusual.
Whether the current battle escalates or not, Berke said a lot of the controversies that have surrounded Sinclair and other RSNs are missing the larger point, which is the erosion of the current RSN model.
“The RSN model works extremely well when cable pay TV penetration is growing or is at least stable,“ Berke said. “But it was not set up to profitably handle the retrenchment of pay TV penetration. That is what needs to be addressed. And you address that by offering up your networks to as many platforms as possible. That’s easier said than done, but it’s imperative.”
Between this and losing the regional sports channels you used to have, and that I wouldn't have switched to you if you didn't have -Fix these problems or I'm goneApril 30, 2021
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