Something to keep on your radar as we await the resolution of the Cubs’ TV broadcast rights after 2019 (they reportedly still intend to start their own channel, but local streaming rights may be an issue): what if a national streaming service like Amazon gets into the regional sports network business?
It’s not just a thought experiment, as Amazon is one of the bidders for the 22 regional sports networks that Disney has to spin off as part of its acquisition of Twenty-First Century FOX. It is possible that FOX will just buy those FOX-branded RSNs back, but there are other bidders, which includes Amazon.
From there, it’s not that hard to imagine what Amazon would like to do, given how it has already elbowed into NFL broadcast rights, streaming games nationally. If Amazon owned the RSNs, it could stream games nationally – for example – to Prime users, and/or Prime users who subscribe to a particular package.
Of course, for that to work, Amazon and MLB would have to sort out the complicated local rights issues that yield blackouts in local markets. MLB, not the individual teams, controls streaming rights, and so far has only very judiciously negotiated deals to allow RSNs to provide local streams to authenticated subscribers. How that would work at a national level with a provider like Amazon? Well, it would necessarily have to be absolutely transformative for the industry – though it’s something we’ve argued, repeatedly, needs to happen anyway.
This is something that should be on your radar, as it’s entirely possible the Cubs have already negotiated with Amazon about partnering on the creation of a hypothetical “network” that is available only on Amazon Prime (the mind boggles in thinking about how much the Cubs could charge Amazon for that …. ). That kind of setup would necessarily require extensive negotiations with MLB, too, about how to handle revenue-sharing with the rest of the league.
Keep in mind, I am doing a TON of dot-connecting here, and I’m not “reporting” anything. But I am speaking with knowledge of the industry, and an understanding of what realistically could happen to baseball rights on the whole going forward.
A second round of bids on the Disney RSNs is due by the end of this year, and if Amazon stays in the mix (and/or other streaming services jump in), I think it will be very telling if the Cubs haven’t resolved their rights situation by then. The timing is probably deeply challenging for the Cubs, but better to wait things out as long as you can than to sign yourself up for some 15-year deal structured in a very old-world way, which could be obsolete in just a year. Heck, I wonder if at some point the Cubs might try to negotiate a very, very short-term deal with a traditional network (CSN Sports Chicago?) to buy themselves more time if they feel like MLB is going to be open to fundamental changes on the streaming side of things.
If this all sounds very uncertain and hypothetical, that’s because it is! The landscape is changing almost daily on all sides (technology, MLB’s interests, internet companies competing for content, traditional providers trying to stay afloat while transitioning, users cutting cable subscriptions, mergers between providers, etc.). This is something that is unquestionably tough for even the interested parties to stay on top of 100% of the way 100% of the time.
Continued good luck to Cubs Business President Crane Kenney and his team on getting the right setup in place not only for the next decade-plus of revenue, but also for the future of the sport and the fans that want to be able to consume it.