The Marquee announcement that they’d be carrying some Iowa Cubs games this year is, unquestionably, good news for Cubs fans with access to Marquee. Given the dominance of a few cable/satellite providers in the Cubs’ broadcast territory, that’s actually most Cubs fans.
It’s not all Cubs fans, though. And inevitably, any time anything broadcast-related comes up, I see the beefing: with MLB’s blackout rules (designed to protect inflated cable rates (by protecting inflated carriage rates for RSNs)), with Marquee not having streaming deals done, etc. I see it every single time, and it probably lands even harder in a Cubs fan ecosystem where so many were raised on WGN’s superstation, sending out games everywhere on the basic cable tier, or sending them out locally over the air. A world where all Cubs games are suddenly on a higher-tier, new cable channel, and it isn’t even available on their alternative services of choice (e.g., YouTube TV and Hulu+ Live TV)? Yeah, I understand why people get upset, and beef every single time.
That put me into a mini thread on Twitter about this issue, and about how, fair or not, the burden is on the RSNs, the teams, and ultimately MLB:
Something that I'm not sure RSNs understand yet, but I get reminded every single time anything TV-related comes up: fans don't care a lick about *why* a channel isn't carried by their provider. They will almost always blame the RSN for failing to get their team to their eyeballs.
— Bleacher Nation Cubs (@BleacherNation) April 21, 2021
So if carrier(s) don't want to pay for your channel, then the onus – fair or not! – is on the RSN and the sport to make sure the fans have easy, clear, affordable access to games in every market. Long-term health (and dollars) depend on it. (More coming soon.)
— Bleacher Nation Cubs (@BleacherNation) April 21, 2021
Long-term, the answer has always been about an over-the-top, direct-to-consumer option, with no blackouts. Or, well, that’s been the answer at least since the cable bundle started disintegrating in favor of streaming apps a decade ago. Fans want to be able to just subscribe to their favorite team’s “Netflix App,” so to speak. The problem, of course, is that RSNs would rather get their channel on every provider in the area, because then they can charge $X per month from every single subscriber, whether they would actually subscribe to the Cubs channel on their own or not. I totally get why teams and RSNs and MLB have gone this route for decades.
But the world changed. A long time ago. Once again, fair or unfair or whatever, it’s up to the sport to take care of the customers if it wants to thrive in this era.
Thankfully, we’ve started to hear the chatter about direct-to-consumer options. Sinclair, which owns and operates the old FOX RSNS, and is a partner in Marquee and the Yankees’ YES Network, has already talked about wanting to offer standalone apps (i.e., you just subscribe to the team’s app to get the channel’s content, including games). They were hoping, as of last fall, that it could be in place by this year, but I haven’t seen any movement on that front.
But now, MLB itself is starting to talk about the inevitability of standalone, over-the-top services, and that’s huge news. Indeed, the league is reportedly encouraging RSNs to explore direct-to-consumer offerings, because – despite what many think – the league does know a bit about what the future holds. (Don’t forget, it was MLB’s media arm that more or less invented streaming 20+ years ago, and then that became the backbone for the streaming executed by HBO Max, Disney+, and so many other services today. Seriously! MLB did that!)
From Fierce Video, the first statement I’ve heard from someone at MLB that puts this new reality on the table:
Major League Baseball is considering a rule change that cord cutters can cheer. After years of relying on traditional distribution of local games via cable and satellite (plus, to a limited extent, over-the-top streaming), MLB is now urging its regional sports networks to explore direct-to-customer possibilities for local fans.
“What we’re trying to do now is work with those RSNs to figure out what type of structure would make sense for an over-the-top product that may not require authentication,” said MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer Chris Marinak in a “Producing OTT Sports Content” keynote interview I led at the Stream TV Sports Summit.
As in, instead of asking online viewers to authenticate themselves with login credentials for a TV service already carrying a regional sports network’s programming, the RSN would sell service direct to those fans.
In other words, in something I’ve been articulating for a while now, RSNs like Marquee would be able to sell a monthly subscription, directly to fans, for access to their content. Just a standalone app like Netflix or Peacock or any of the other streaming services out there. The jewel of such an app, of course, would be the live games. The trick would be an appropriate price tag that doesn’t explode the carriage deals that the RSNs are otherwise happy to keep in place, but that isn’t so high that you’re going to get only marginal adoption. Like, you can have Marquee as part of your cable package (where it is effectively costing you $4 to $5 per month), or you can sign up for the Marquee app for $15 per month. Or whatever. Those numbers would have to be figured out, but there’s clearly an answer.
From there, the big question is about broadcast territories, where MLB has historically utilized its MLB.tv and Extra Innings products to get live games to fans out-of-market. If anyone anywhere in the country could get Marquee, not only might that crush MLB.tv, but it could also impact parity among big market and small market teams. (OK, sure, but both of those things can be solved by figuring out revenue-sharing. Why would you limit what your fans really want – and what will spread your game the most – when you can figure out the details on the revenue-sharing side?)
Ultimately, I’m confident that some version of direct-to-consumer from some RSNs will be a reality within the next couple years. It’s just the world now, and MLB is not the dinosaur entity most think it to be. They’re actually pretty progressive and nimble when there is a lot of money at stake.
Here at the end, I’m reminded of something that got my attention yesterday, and how this stuff is always both simple and complex. Unlike MLB, the NFL doesn’t have regional sports networks. They just have their national contracts, and their much-more-popular national channels. Thus, something like this is much easier for them to pull off:
But, like I said at the top, complexity and unique challenges aren’t an excuse for MLB, its teams, and its RSNs not to get the games to the fans who want to be able to watch them however they want. The short-term cable dollars are getting shorter-term every year, and the long-term streaming considerations – how do we make sure there is a big fan in 2030+ to support the sport at all? – would seem more imposing every year.