I consume way too much sports TV. Actually, I consume way too much TV in general. Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon, Apple TV plus, I have them all. MLB.tv, MiLB.tv, NFL GamePass. I spend more on streaming services than I ever would buying a cable package, and I do so knowingly and without regret.
Why? Many reasons. I hate commercials. I like schedule flexibility. And the streaming services take more chances with their programming, which I like. You’d never see a show like Netflix’s The OA or Dear White People produced for network TV (and probably not even cable). When I was a kid, I always hoped TV would be like it is today—no commercials, watch what you want when you want.
But of course, large media conglomerates had to come in and muck it all up.
Back in August of 2019, Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased 21 of the Fox regional sports networks (what the Royals are broadcast on). Sinclair is a notoriously ruthless company with some questionable negotiating practices and even more questionable media ethics.
After the 2020 season, Hulu and YoutubeTV decided to drop these regional sports networks because Sinclair was demanding more and more in regional sports fees, and as a result, there are currently no streaming services expected to carry these regional sports networks for the 2021 MLB season. There have been negotiations between Hulu, YoutubeTV, and Sinclair, but they’re as dead as disco right now. And the season starts in two days.
If you’re thinking No worries, just watch it on MLB.TV, then you’re clearly new to cord cutting. MLB.TV has severe blackout restrictions. As the above map shows, if you live in Kansas City—or anywhere in western Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, or Iowa—you cannot watch live Royals baseball on MLB.TV. In many states, viewers are blacked out from multiple teams. Iowans are blacked out from seemingly every team.
So, cord-cutters need a streaming platform to carry those regional networks, or they don’t have any (legal) way to watch games of their regional teams live. And right now … there isn’t a streaming platform willing to do it. Nobody has specifics of the negotiations, but it seems like a number of carriers are balking at fees they see as excessive while Sinclair is holding fast to their fee demands. It’s not clear who deserves the lion’s share of the blame, but as Sinclaire is generally awful and the one with the power to make this happen even if it means taking a little less money, I’m inclined to blame them the most.
All of this means that there is no way for tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of fans to regularly watch games. And more importantly for MLB and the Royals, there’s no way for millions of potential fans to watch.
The fact is, baseball has a young people problem. As young people gravitate toward a more diverse range of entertainment options, including sports growing in popularity like soccer and Esports, baseball is struggling to keep pace. Its fanbase skews decidedly old with only 23 percent of people 18-20 and only 25 percent of people 21-34 stating they are “somewhat” or “very” interested in baseball in a recent survey. Compare that to 32 percent in the 50-69 year-old category, and it’s clear that baseball needs a strategy for attracting younger fans.
One way to attract younger fans is to provide the opportunity for them to watch your product. But for some reason, MLB and Sinclair are currently flushing this opportunity right down the toilet. Research on media trends indicates that non-traditional TV consumption has now overtaken traditional TV consumption among 12-17 year-olds and has drawn even among 18-34 year-olds, the very groups MLB needs to be courting.
It’s a misconception among young people that everyone just streams TV now. They don’t, actually. On the whole, people consume far more traditional TV than non-traditoinal TV, but the numbers are heading in the direction of non-traditional TV, even among older demographics. In Q1 of 2020, which includes the early days of the pandemic when people were staying home a lot more, every age demographic watched less traditional TV and more non-traditional TV than in previous quarters.
It makes absolutely no sense for the short-term (and especially not the long-term) well-being of MLB and Sinclair to keep cord-cutters from watching games. To some degree, this is outside MLB’s control. Teams have contracts in place with Sinclair that force MLB to keep these blackout restrictions in place for MLB.TV (something MLB should reconsider as part of future team TV contracts), thus driving viewers to Sinclair’s regional sports networks. MLB.TV is designed for out-of-market viewership, and as far as I know, no clause exists that would require Sinclaire to reach a streaming deal of some kind or allow MLB to loosen blackout restrictions for MLB.TV.
This means Sinclair is holding virtually all the cards and can choose to do what they want with them. There is talk that they are working on a streaming platform of their own, but it won’t be ready until 2022. In the short term, they may be trying to do what the NFL does and force people toward a cable subscription by providing very few channels for consumption with hyper-specific contexts. That strategy is a mistake, and the NFL is slowly seeing that and transitioning to a more diverse slate of viewing options.
In the broad scope, this is as much a debate of old media ideas versus new ones. Traditionally, media companies maximized profits through vigorous and rigid control of access to their content. See everything Disney has done for its entire existence for an example of this. But young people grew up in a world of flexible and cheap (even free) media content. They aren’t going back, and they’re the ones who will drive the future of televised sports. Most of them will give up on baseball and find something else before they give up cheap, flexible media.
One of the motivators for the NFL’s transition to a more flexible distribution strategy may have been the emergence and proliferation of pirated streams, which is what it may take for Sinclair to wise up and realize that even a less-than-ideal streaming deal is better than no streaming deal at this point.
Better for fans, better for MLB, and probably better for Sinclair.
*Note: Sinclair, which has done a whole bunch of other really awful stuff, is about as morally bankrupt as a media conglomerate gets, and that’s really saying something.