I’ll tell you up front that I’m still mulling the broader implications of this, and it’s possible there won’t be many in the next five years. But long term, there can be no doubt that we are seeing the progression of a fundamental shift in they way consumers are offered video content, and that will implicate the cable model – and thus broadcast rights for baseball teams – in a very significant way.
The news: after purchasing a minority stake in MLB’s BAMTech (the video streaming arm, owned by the 30 MLB owners) last year, Disney is now purchasing a majority stake in BAMTech. Among many non-baseball-related implications (including a Disney streaming service) will be a standalone ESPN streaming product, powered by the BAMTech backbone. Given that ESPN had generated the bulk of its revenues from the fees cable providers pay to carry their channels on their service (the same way that regional sports networks make their bulk of their money after paying huge rights fees to baseball teams), this represents a possible extreme disruption to the cable model.
The ESPN service is expected to include a huge volume of MLB games, by the way.
Where does this leave MLB’s streaming future, and that of the Chicago Cubs, whose TV rights will once again be available to sell after the 2019 season? Well, for one thing, it’s important to remember that, since the nascent days of streaming, those online rights have always belonged to MLB as a whole, not the individual teams. Large-market, large-fan teams like the Cubs would probably always have wanted to control their own streaming rights, but to help make the MLB.tv service viable – and to protect local large cable deals – the rights were all pooled together, and blackouts were employed.
Is that all about to be disrupted, too? And are the Cubs a significant enough brand within that microverse to move the needle on the entire way MLB video rights are sold and distributed?
Well, given that MLB has recently agreed to allow local providers to stream games to authenticated subscribers, and has also been working with online services like Facebook and Twitter to stream games (including a pilot program that streamed Cubs games locally with no blackout), I’m not so sure our entire world – in terms of the way Cubs games are delivered – is going to be turned upside down.
HOWEVER, these complicated issues are undoubtedly on the table behind the scenes, as the Cubs have to make a decision that could lock them into a deal for 15 to 30 years. And they have to do so in the midst of a total revolution in content consumption.
I can barely wrap my mind around it, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t land on anywhere solid right now. Suffice to say, more news is coming over the next couple years, in the streaming sports world at large, and in the Cubs’ rights world specifically.