Bally Sports Decision To Upend The RSN Model Primes MLB To Take Over Its Own Distribution

The signs have been there for some time, but when Diamond Sports Group’s Bally Sports collection of regional sports networks officially files for bankruptcy protection, it will start the process of redefining the entire regional sports network model.

Rob Manfred saw it coming. There’s little doubt that Adam Silver and Gary Bettman did, as well. When Disney was forced by regulators to sell off what was then the FOX Sports regional sports networks for $10.6 billion to Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Holdings, it was a leveraged purchase. While subscribers to traditional television bundles had been peeling away for years, when the pandemic hit, it accelerated the process. In 2022, Diamond inked a transaction support agreement with lenders and bondholders for $600 million – a band-aid of sorts and a warning sign that the ability of the regional sports networks to pay their bills was on thin ice.

This week, the $140 million debt payment was skipped, and Diamond officially entered into a 30-day grace period leading into what will assuredly be court-controlled restructuring in which the teams that collect media rights will be at the end of the line behind creditors.

As noted, the commissioners of MLB, NBA, and NHL were all aware that streaming was picking up steam while traditional television has been on the wane, the bankruptcy news by the largest collection of RSNs is a disruptor of sizable proportions.

There are 19 Bally Sports regional sports networks that air 14 MLB, 16 NB, and 12 NHL teams. While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that the expectation is that contractional obligations will be met — and that stance is assuredly what the other leagues are hoping — MLB, with their season on the cusp, may be in the best position to go it alone.

“We’ve been really clear that if Diamond doesn’t pay, under every single one of the broadcast agreements, that creates a termination right, and our clubs will proceed to terminate those contracts,” Manfred said as part of meeting with the media in Florida on Thursday.

Manfred and the league have made it clear that all games will be made available to fans for the upcoming season. What occurs with Bally may come in the form of all or just some of the RSNs not being able to work with MLB by meeting their obligations. How the league will cover the game could come in a couple of forms. First off, the league is prepared today to do direct-to-consumer streaming via their MLB.TV platform that has been the gold standard for sports streaming services for years. An updated version of the service would provide games in-market and with it, the league would use the opportunity to lift the blackout policy.

“Blackouts are the kind of opposite side of the coin of reach,” Manfred said. “We need to deliver product to fans who want to watch on platforms that they customarily use at a realistic price. That is our No. 1 priority.”

For linear television, it’s possible that the league could take over production given their history of doing so through MLB Network.

“In the event that MLB stepped in, what we would do is we would produce the games, we would make use of our asset with the MLB Network to do that, we would go directly to distributors, ComcastCMCSA
, Charter, the big distributors, and make an agreement to have those games distributed on cable networks,” added Manfred.

What seems certain is that the collapse of Bally Sports will change the RSN model. Should MLB walk away and take their media rights back, it leaves a gaping hole in Bally’s programming. Baseball is by far the largest inventory group of all the major sports given its 162-game schedule. With little else during the summer for Bally to plug in, the overall structure of the RSNs seems destined for collapse.

But if Bally’s is the catalyst, it’s not the only RSNs to be on the brink. While it largely flew under the radar, three Warner Brothers/Discovery-owned AT&TT
regional sports networks only made partial payments to the Pirates, Astros, and Rockies this week.

While MLB seems prepared to address matters, the NBA and NHL have open questions. Both have made statements that all games will be available to fans, but with their seasons nearing the halfway mark, it may be a wait-and-see game. On Friday, the NBA renewed its streaming rights for 12 months based on certain criteria that Bally must meet.

On MLB’s side, one wonders whether there’s supreme faith that going it alone – while painful financially in some way – it may not be in others. After all, if Manfred and the league saw this coming, owners have been as well. Quietly the league created an Economic Committee and with it, the change in the RSN model has to have been front and center. Could changes in revenue sharing be discussed? Could efforts to find new centralized revenues take more prominence? Some clubs, like the Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres were aggressive in free agency signings this off-season. Both clubs have agreements with Bally Sports RSNs. How spending looks in 2024 and beyond will largely be determined on revenues going forward, which seem certain to be smaller for some clubs as the model changes.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, maybe it’s this: if direct-to-consumer streaming becomes a bigger part of the local media equation, like NetflixNFLX
, or Hulu, or Disney+, if you’re not offering quality programming, you’re hard-pressed to keep subscribers. That’s going to put pressure on clubs to work toward competitive teams. In the past, with RSN deals locking in media rights fees, clubs haven’t had to worry about whether the teams they field perform good or bad in the standings. Now, it will have a direct effect on their subscriber base.

The younger demographic – those 18-24 in age – have been going to streaming prior. Now, the older demographics will be pushed into it as the media landscape changes. And the Bally Sports bankruptcy will assuredly be the biggest catalyst for the change.