Finally, a substantive update on Sinclair’s efforts to create an a la carte, direct-to-consumer, streaming-only option for its Bally Sports regional sports networks (formerly the FOX RSNs, and some others). I’ll start with the update, and then I’ll work backwards to fill in the background if you forget a lot of why this matters.
Per a report from the New York Post, Sinclair is aiming to launch a new streaming service in 2022 that would bundle up all of its Bally content – all of its RSNs, all the sports – for $23 per month (in-market, though apparently Sinclair is also going to try to secure out-of-market rights, too). That might sound expensive at first blush, but given that regional sports previously have been available only as part of $100+ cable/satellite packages, it is not more than I would’ve expected. Cable partners pay huge carriage fees to the teams’ RSNs in order to include their network channel on their cable package, and thus can charge subscribers huge monthly fees. So if they were going to allow Sinclair to offer a streaming-only option – thus encouraging even more cord-cutting – it was going to have to be for a really significant monthly price.
To be honest, for all Bally content – some of the RSNs have multiple major sports – I might’ve expected closer to $30 per month. I’m not saying whether that’s a good or a bad thing or a reasonable price or whatever – just saying where my expectations were. Heck, for folks who would get the app for only six months compared to twelve months for cable, the current cable folks are probably already paying just about that same amount, indirectly, in carriage fees. Just as an fyi.
(And if it included out-of-market games, too? I mean, right now, that’s MLB.tv plus the equivalent products for the NBA and NHL, so it’s already really expensive to get all of that. Obviously it’s not all the teams, but even still – you can expect that *IF* Sinclair got out-of-market rights to include in its streaming service, that’s going to be an extra fee.)
Your immediate question is whether Marquee Sports Network would be included in this package, and my guess is no. Not only is Marquee not part of Bally, and not only is it not mentioned in the Post report, but also YES Network – in which Sinclair has a minority ownership interest, like Marquee – is discussed as likely being a separate thing. I suspect Marquee is also going to be a separate thing.
That said, if and when Sinclair/Bally goes to a direct-to-consumer option, you can expect that the Cubs and Marquee will be evaluating how they can do the same. And you can also assume, if MLB would allow it, the Cubs would love to be able to sell out-of-market fans the Marquee app – with everything, including live games, on it – for a monthly fee. The issue there is going to be revenue-sharing, since MLB doesn’t want its big-market teams to crush the smaller-market teams, which winds up a long-term harm to the sport’s competitiveness (and, in turn, the sport, itself). Moreover, I’d hope the league is thinking not just about short-term revenues but is also thinking about long-term distribution – i.e., maximizing the volume of eyeballs that can see games over a long period of time. It feels like that ceased to be the priority a long time ago, and it feels very short-sighted.
Things to keep in mind: if this all does happen, and if it does happen with Marquee, you are likely to still have options. If you’re in-market, you will probably still be able to have Marquee on your traditional cable package, *OR* you could get the streaming app, if you don’t have cable. If you’re out-of-market, we’ll see what happens, but one way or another you’ll be able to get Cubs games, either because Marquee is permitted to expand out-of-market, or because you can keep getting MLB.tv.
Now the background, from our update last month:
Sinclair owns the former Fox regional sports networks (now branded “Bally”), and has a partner stake in Marquee and YES. So what they do with Bally doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing will happen with Marquee or YES – which are much bigger and majority-owned by the owners of the Cubs and Yankees, respectively – but I suspect the plans with Bally will always provide us useful information for plans with Marquee and YES. So I’m not treating them all interchangeably as “Sinclair RSNs,” but there’s useful information there. Also: a reminder that even MLB has acknowledged that the future of baseball delivery is going to involve direct-to-consumer apps (i.e., a Marquee app that is like Netflix, where you just pay Marquee a monthly fee directly).
In its latest earnings call, Sinclair indicated that it is now aiming to launch direct-to-consumer streaming in the first half of 2022 (fair to guess they’re hoping for it to launch before the 2022 baseball season). More importantly, they indicated that they already have the rights – from the distributors and “the vast majority” of the teams – to utilize a direct-to-consumer option. That means, when the time comes, and Sinclair wants to offer a standalone subscription app that would let Brewers fans just get Brewers content (or whatever), they won’t have to fight the cable providers who’ve signed on to carriage agreements for that channel (which, to be honest, I WOULD HAVE expected a fight, since a big part of the reason they’re willing to pay the carriage fees is because they know consumers can get Brewers games ONLY via cable services like theirs … if a direct-to-consumer option comes along, then doesn’t that materially hurt the cable provider’s business? But, hey, I’m just telling you what Sinclair said).
Again, Marquee is its own thing, but Sinclair has been involved in all carriage-related issues. So if they launch standalone apps next year, it’s a reasonable bet that the Cubs will be mulling doing the same thing. Note, as always: this relates only to in-market service. If you’re out of the Cubs’ broadcast market, the rights to view games are still controlled by MLB, not the individual team. So your option for streaming games is likely to remain something like MLB.tv (even though, obviously, it would make much more sense for the consumer to just be able to subscribe to Cubs Netflix wherever they live, and get everything the app offers, including games).