Baseball’s Opening Day is beloved for generating hope, reviving seasonal rhythms and reminding those in colder climates that spring is just around the corner. Historically, it has also served as the inflection date for disputes between cable companies and regional sports channels to come to an end, another happy byproduct.
The thinking went that baseball is a must-have for both sides. That paradigm has been upturned in the advent of the streaming era. Sinclair’s 21 regional sports channels, branded under the moniker Bally Sports Regional Networks, have yet to cut broad deals with Sling, Hulu, YouTube TV and Fubo a week into the season. Throw in satellite carrier Dish, which has no deal with Sinclair, and that’s about 10 million homes.
“It’s become pretty clear that there just aren’t that many subscribers who will leave over the lack of an RSN,” media analyst Craig Moffett, of MoffettNathanson, wrote in an email. “The days of putting every RSN on the basic tier and forcing every non-fan to pay for them are over. And there’s strength in numbers. As more and more distributors decide to go ‘RSN-naked,’ it becomes easier for the next one to follow the same path.”
That is obviously an ominous picture for the RSN world. Still, Sinclair’s RSN’s are in about 60 million homes through more traditional cable providers like Comcast. And the company believes in the model, having in recent months signed long-term extensions with the Milwaukee Brewers and Miami Marlins. (One source pegged the Marlins’ rights fee at $50 million annually, a big leap from the $20 million Sinclair had previously been paying.)
Sinclair did not reply to a request for comment. In a statement to WVXU in Cincinnati last month on the dispute with two of the streamers, the company — referring to the channels by their old name, Fox — said: “Sinclair remains committed to reaching a fair agreement with both Hulu and YouTube TV to carry the Fox RSNs. At no time have we demanded exorbitant fees for these channels. Instead, we have consistently offered both pay-TV providers extremely fair deals in line with what hundreds of other TV services have agreed to and continue to agree to.”
Sinclair’s stock price has fallen 6 percent since the start of the year, compared to a 10 percent increase in the S&P 500 index, underscoring investor concern about the RSNs’ reach.