Monday, October 18, 2021

MLB Explores Launching Streaming Service

Major League Baseball is in talks to launch a nationwide video-streaming service that would enable fans to watch their teams’ hometown games without a cable-TV subscription, The NY Post has learned.

The web-based service — which could address a decades-old annoyance for baseball fans that some have partly blamed for the league’s steadily declining viewership — could launch as early as the 2023 season, a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations said.

The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League are also considering partnering with MLB on the new streaming service, sources said. Insiders say subscription rates would vary by geographic market and could be between $10 and $20 a month — well below the monthly cost of most cable-TV packages, which can easily stretch past $100.

Since the 1990s, baseball fans have been largely beholden to cable TV to watch their local sports teams play at home, as the teams have sold the broadcast rights to so-called regional sports networks, or RSNs, which then charge cable and satellite-TV operators to air the games.

While the MLB wants to give fans the option to sidestep pricey cable packages, local games will still be broadcast on cable as they are now and the broadcasts would be identical, according to people familiar with the plans. The league’s MLB.TV service, which offers out-of-market games for a subscription fee, will also continue to operate, sources said.

Sources said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred could end up offering cable-TV giants a piece of the streaming revenue to compensate for potential subscriber losses. Manfred’s pitch is that cable TV won’t lose many subscribers, as MLB is mainly targeting younger customers who have already cut the cord, sources said. The cable companies don’t have streaming rights but could retaliate by paying less to broadcast games if they don’t like the bargain, sources said.

MLB viewership is down about 12 percent this year compared to the 2019 season, according to Sportsnaut. The 45 million fans who attended regular-season games in 2021 amounted to a 34 percent drop compared with two seasons ago. While the pandemic was largely to blame, it was the lowest number of fans in a full season since 1984.

The talks between MLB and the other parties are fluid and while terms are being negotiated, a deal is not yet close at hand, sources said.

Meanwhile, sources said Manfred could face still thornier negotiations with Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Maryland-based telecom giant that owns the digital broadcast rights to 14 of the league’s 30 baseball teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.

Both MLB and Sinclair have plausible legal claims to the hometown-game streaming rights. Nevertheless, insiders say MLB wants to launch its service independently of Sinclair’s Diamond Sports unit, which currently airs most of its MLB games through its Bally Sports-branded regional TV networks.

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