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Why Sinclair’s $250 Million Sports Streaming Swing Could Deliver a Walk-off Defeat of Pay TV

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger
(Image credit: Major League Baseball)

News this past week that Sinclair Broadcast Group and investment banker LionTree are raising $250 million to launch a sports streaming service may not be quite as big a deal as, say, that $43 billion spinoff/merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery. 

But despite the difference in the number of zeroes involved, a Sinclair streaming service could  dramatically reshape the sports streaming leader board, and not incidentally, what’s left of the cable bundle and broadcast TV, too.

It’s an obvious move to turn Sinclair’s suite of 21 regional cable sports networks into a streaming power, even if one that’s not quite national in scope. Likely, it would have happened far sooner, had the pandemic not shut down sports this time last year, and deeply complicated just about everything else having to do with producing and distributing video. 

Sinclair, despite its deep broadcast roots, has been building digital infrastructure and competence for years. Its portfolio includes not just those 186 local broadcast stations, but several digital over-the-air channels, hybrid AVOD/local programming streaming service STIRR, a major investment in ATSC 3.0 tech, and the shared local-news service NewsON, plus a better integrated ad-selling infrastructure. 

Not coincidentally, Sinclair also bought into Bally’s, selling naming rights for its regional sports networks for $85 million and a 15% stake in the gambling company. Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley has been championing sports gambling’s potential since at least 2018, when the company’s most notable sports holding was the Tennis Channel. 

These days, Sinclair’s sports empire is considerably more impressive, including networks carrying 42 teams in the Big Four pro U.S. sports, a college sports network, and part ownership in the Chicago Cubs’ Marquee Network and the New York Yankees YES Network. 

The sports service would only be available in the markets where Sinclair has its networks, but that still includes most of the country’s biggest markets, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, Detroit, Indiana, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

A streaming service is also the best chance the company has to redeem its nearly $10 billion purchase of the RSNs in 2019. Disney likely would have kept the networks as part of its Fox acquisition, knitting them into ESPN and ESPN Plus, but for once, antitrust divestiture actually worked.

It’s been a dream deferred since that deal closed in 2019, though, thanks to the pandemic, a months-long sports shutdown, and larger viewing trends moving audiences from cable to connected TVs and streaming. With a sports streamer, Sinclair would catch up its biggest investment with where viewers are heading. 

The price of admission would be steep, $23 a month, probably around the all-in price of a future Warner Bros. Discovery bundle—ad-free HBO Max and Discovery Plus, and whatever CNN Plus ends up looking like. 

But for sports fans looking to see every game of their home teams of choice, a streaming service called something like Bally’s Sports Plus could be a bargain. 

It would remove the headaches of subscribing to an RSN on a cable provider, frequently on a more expensive tier, if it’s even available. Los Angeles Dodgers fans in many parts of Southern California, for instance, went five seasons with no access to most of their team’s games because of long-running carriage battles between Charter Communications and many other providers in the region. 

Add in the Bally’s connection, which almost certainly brings betting information and likely in-game betting, and the Sinclair service could be a big deal indeed. That’s especially the case with hockey, basketball and baseball teams, which largely have only regional audiences.  

Upstart sports networks and skinny bundles such as DAZN and Fubo have carved out modest but significant followings built on combat sports and international soccer. Bally’s Sports Plus would bring much more mainstream programming to local fans most likely to watch, and pay for, it. 

In turn, a Sinclair streamer creates potentially big problems for the anemic ESPN Plus, at least as currently constituted. It could even impact the Four-Letter Mothership, saddled as it is with a complicated Disney streaming strategy and a declining cable redoubt. And would family-focused Disney add gambling to ESPN Plus? 

That’s a big enough set of questions. 

But it’s also worth pondering what else cable audiences will have to watch after they lose exclusive access to one of the few remaining sources of tune-in regular programming. What’s left when local pro and college sports head off to join the first-run movies, premium series, live news, and reality shows already on streaming sources?   

The reasons for sticking to legacy providers, which still provide the majority of TV viewing, will dwindle to virtually nothing, likely further accelerating the collapse of the cable bundle. 

Reports suggest Sinclair hopes to launch the service in April, in time for the next Major League Baseball season. By then, we also should have an Amazon Prime bolstered by all those MGM movies and TV shows, and a merged Warner Bros. Discovery up and running, possibly with a better logo. And then, we’ll see for real what’s left of the cable bundle.