Thursday, January 14, 2021

For Baseball, TV is Broken

Last week Ken Rosenthal had a piece up on The Athletic site about the major reduction in rights fees for the new contract between ESPN and Major League Baseball. The numbers are significant, with MLB revenues from the deal expected to go down from about $700 million a year to about $550 million. Sadly, one thing that won't be affected is ESPN's awful Sunday night baseball package, which will continue to take games away from Sunday afternoon and move them to the evening and, at least in the case of the Mets, replace a really good broadcast with a pretty awful one.

In case you couldn't tell from the previous paragraph, I've always winced at the news that ESPN was taking a Mets game for it's Sunday night slot. I hate the way that ESPN's telecasts are geared more towards casual fans than people like myself who love the game. I get why they do it, actually, trying to maximize their audience as much as possible, but I often feel like the game itself gets lost in the coverage. The same holds true for games on FOX, even more so if you get one of their "lesser" announcing teams doing the game, but with ESPN you get the double whammy of taking a game scheduled for a Sunday afternoon away moving it to the evening. With most Saturday games played at night now, you hate to see those Sunday afternoon games lost. Not to mention that it just feels wrong to play baseball on a Sunday evening, period. I wouldn't hate it half as much if ESPN would pick any other night for their national broadcast, but they clearly see Sunday night as the best choice for ratings.

But having gotten that out of my system, ESPN negotiating lower rights for their baseball package is part of an ongoing trend. As Rosenthal points out, the gravy train that RSNs represented for MLB teams seems to be comin off the tracks:

On the local level, regional sports networks were a major economic driver in the early 2010s. The Angels, for example, negotiated a 20-year, $3 billion deal with Fox Sports West in December 2011, then promptly used their newfound cash to sign first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson to free-agent contracts worth a combined $315 million.

Large-market teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers continue to benefit from long-term RSN deals or owning part of their networks. But the erosion of the cable-television model, exacerbated by the pandemic, is creating a more challenging environment for every major professional sport but the NFL, which does not rely on RSNs.

Cord-cutting, in which viewers cancel their cable or satellite subscriptions and watch programming in other ways, means fewer subscribers for RSNs. The networks in turn become less attractive to distributors, and the squeeze at both ends makes them less willing to pursue deals with teams as aggressively as they once did.

I think many of us were somewhat surprised that Steve Cohen didn't push harder for the Wilpons' interest in SNY, but perhaps some of that's related to the perception that RSNs are losing some value as Cable and Streaming TV providers balk at the ever-increasing carriage fees these networks are trying to charge. Cord-cutting is also becoming a big thing, even among some old timers like myself. I got tired of "locking" into a price with Comcast for a two year deal, only to see dramatic increases in the fees they charge that escalated the price I was paying per month during the term of that deal. I switched to YouTube TV which, among other things, offers SNY in my package.

At the time I switched a couple of years ago, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans in my area were able to watch their teams games on YES and NESN. Both of those networks have since been dropped from the package. You could still get NESN on the FUBO streaming service, but I'm not aware of any streaming service that carries YES in my area other than DirecTV's service, which is as expensive as cable. Look at all of the nonsense in the ongoing saga between Fox Sports West, the Dodgers' RSN, and local cable and streaming packages for their area. I question how much it helps the growth of baseball when fans of popular teams can't even watch their team's games live. 

YouTube TV has gone up in price quite a lot in recent years, and I constantly evaluate whether I want to move on to a different service. That choice would be a lot easier if there was a way I could watch Mets games without having to worry about a package that includes SNY. The way that many of us consume tv continues to evolve, and for generations coming of age now, the dynamic of being tied to a cord and an outdated system of having their entertainment delivered to them mean absolutely nothing. If baseball can't figure out how to get their games in front of the eyes of these folks, they'll just move on to something other than baseball. That's already happening to some extent.

When I think back to just how much my viewing habits have evolved in the past decade, I question whether Regional Sports Networks such as SNY will even be relevant in 2030, when the Mets contract with SNY expires. The current model for both cable and streaming services, forcing subscribers to pay for tons of content that they don't even watch, seems fated to go the way of movies on physical media and newspapers and magazines. Sure, old timers like me are likely to continue doing what we have to do to get our baseball fix, but plenty of younger folks are just going to find something else to do if MLB doesn't expand their viewing choices.

The popularity of RSNs fueled baseball's growth for a couple of decades, but they've become somewhat of a trap for MLB and its teams these days. It would be in the best interest of growing the sport to do away with the idiotic local blackouts for MLB.tv, but the Regional Sports Networks that invested so heavily in carrying live baseball games aren't going to let it happen unless MLB and these networks come to some sort of agreement to compensate them for lost revenue from cable and streaming services.

What works against that, in my opinion, is the lack of visionaries running MLB and its clubs. The Golden age of baseball management is long over. The Bill Veecks and Branch Rickeys are long gone, and they've been replaced by bean counters who are content to allow others to innovate and then copycat off of them if something appears to be working. Meanwhile, baseball fandom just keeps skewing older and older.

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I saw a piece on Mets.com today ranking the best international signings in Mets history. What struck me was just how pathetic the list was. Don't get me wrong, José Reyes and Edgardo Alfonzo are worthy names, but after that you don't have anyone who was an impact player for the Mets. Octavio Dotel, Carlos Gómez and especially Nelson Cruz were good elsewhere, not so much with the Mets. Then Amed Rosario was actually sixth on the list, and Andrés Giménez actually earned an honorable mention.

I'm not making fun of Anthony DiComo's solid choices here, though I might debate him on some minor details. I surely hope if I'm still around a decade from now and someone produces a list like this, there might be some better players keeping Reyes and Fonzie company on that list. As I've written again and again here, the Mets have to be a bigger and more successful player in the international market. Period. This list is proof of how far they have to go.

Okay, I'm out for today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

3 comments:

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  2. Very good article. I live in eastern Pa and a diehard Mets had. When the Mets switched their majority of games off WOR-9 to RSN's, I bought a C-band satellite. Living in "Phillies territory, I was subjected to only Phillies games due to the idiotic blackout rules. Then, as C-band went extinct, I went to Direct-TV. With DTV, their is a way to circumvent the blackouts as long as you are a good paying customer. Now, with DTV, the irony of the whole thing is that the Phillies are not broadcast on DTV due to Comcast unless you buy the extra innings package. It is a ridiculous rule that is decades outdated. But due to greed, I do not see this asinine rule changing in the distant future. As far as catching games on an App, it is very cumbersome to watch a game (buffering issues, not being able to just turn the channel during commercials, etc.). I am happy to be able to watch the games on the EI package (paid in full) which, through DTV, provide you a free version of the app when I am away from home. But the bottom line is the entire rule is outdated and greed rules the day unfortunately.

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  3. Great comment. I don't watch games in the app, but ROKU has an MLB.tv app that's not bad, FWIW.

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