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MLB broadcasting rights, explained: What Bally Sports parent company bankruptcy could mean for fans in 2023

MLB is attempting to address two of its most confusing — and most hated — debacles early in 2023: Broadcasting rights and blackouts.

The vast majority of MLB games are televised via a regional sports network — or RSN — structure. That means broadcasting rights are handled locally, as opposed to the NFL, for example, which has broadcasting rights with five companies (Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN/ABC, Amazon Prime).

The result for baseball is teams are left to work with local broadcasters to show games. Some major-market teams — notably the Yankees, Cubs, Mets and Red Sox — have their own network for broadcasting. Others work with regional outlets.

The most common broadcast partner is Bally Sports, which was previously under the Fox Sports umbrella and is now owned by Diamond Sports Group, an arm of broadcast TV giant Sinclair. Fourteen MLB teams broadcast with Bally Sports.

Diamond Sports Group said Feb. 15 it is skipping its $140 million payout, which could mean a pending bankruptcy. That could open the door for MLB to take over streaming rights.

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The Sporting News breaks down what you need to know about MLB’s local television situation and how Diamond Sports Group’s troubles could affect how fans watch games in 2023: 

What is Diamond Sports Group?

Diamond Sports Group is owned by Sinclair and is the operating arm of the regional Bally Sports networks, which hold the broadcasting rights to 14 teams — far and away the largest holding under one corporate umbrella. The second-highest number is four apiece for NBC Sports and AT&T.

The teams currently broadcasting under the Bally banner are:

  • Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Atlanta Braves
  • Cincinnati Reds
  • Cleveland Guardians
  • Detroit Tigers
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Los Angeles Angels
  • Miami Marlins
  • Milwaukee Brewers
  • Minnesota Twins
  • St. Louis Cardinals
  • San Diego Padres
  • Tampa Bay Rays
  • Texas Rangers

Diamond Sports Group failed to pay a $140 million interest-only payout on Wednesday, which means it is now in a 30-day grace period. Should DSG fail to pay after that period, it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In addition, teams can sell the broadcasting rights if DSG misses a payment.

Diamond Sports Group was purchased by Sinclair after Disney was forced to sell following its takeover of Fox for antitrust reasons.

In its statement Wednesday, DSG wrote it “intends to use the 30-day grace period to continue progressing its ongoing discussions with creditors and other key stakeholders regarding potential strategic alternatives and deleveraging transactions to best position Diamond Sports Group for the future,” per ESPN.

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What does Diamond Sports Group’s failed payment mean for MLB?

Because of DSG’s financial troubles, MLB may pick up broadcasting rights in the short term, but it would be unlikely to be permanent.

“In the event that MLB stepped in, what we would do is we would produce the games,” commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters, per ESPN. “We would make use of our asset, the MLB Network, to do that. We would go directly to distributors — meaning Comcast, Charter, the big distributors — and make an agreement to have those games distributed on cable networks. My expectations is that as part of the negotiation, there would be a negotiation over price. And that probably gets back to the question about, you know, what the economics would look like, but we would also be seeking flexibility on the digital side.”

Parsing through a lot of understandably fenced language, Manfred is saying MLB Network would produce the games and agree to be carried on cable locally while also (hopefully) being more available to cord-cutters. In other words, fans should be able to watch their teams regardless of the outcome. 

Manfred did, however, make it clear he wants to continue to work with DSG and Bally.

“Obviously, we want all of our broadcast partners to be successful,” he said. “We don’t want them to have financial difficulties, and we have been spending a lot of time and effort trying to work with them, figure out where they are. Obviously, our first choice would be that Diamond pay the clubs what they’re contractually obligated to pay them, but because I guess I’m a contingency planner by nature, we are prepared no matter what happens with respect to Diamond to make sure that games are available to fans in their local markets.

“We think it will be both linear in the traditional cable bundle and digitally on our own platforms, but that remains to be seen. As I said, our first hope is that Diamond figures out a way to pay the clubs and broadcast the games like they’re contractually obligated to do.”

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Why does MLB black out games?

The league’s streaming platform, MLB.TV, is a solid deal. It’s $150 for a year to watch any game at any time.

The problem is that it comes with a massive snag: It won’t work for local cord-cutters. In-market fans can’t watch their teams on because regional networks want exclusive broadcasting rights to games.

As a result of the RSN structure, MLB fans have been forced to deal with geographic blackouts. Due to a desire for exclusivity from MLB broadcasting partners, fans using MLB.TV can’t watch in-market games. The incentive is both for networks and to get fans to stadiums, but the geographic parameters are dubious: Fans in Iowa, for instance, are famously blacked out for Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, Royals, Brewers and Twins games.

Also confusing are tentpole events, such as the All-Star Game or the postseason. Because of MLB’s rights with ESPN, TBS, and Fox, those games may also be subject to blackout on MLB.TV. So in essence, MLB.TV is great for out-of-market fans. But it is specifically designed to ensure in-market fans must stick with cable.

RSNs, however, may well be losing some rights soon.

What did Rob Manfred say about blackouts?

Manfred himself doesn’t appear to be a fan of blackouts despite his hands being tied.

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

Despite the somewhat confusing terminology, what Manfred appears to be saying is that he wants to be more digital-friendly.

Blackouts are largely a team issue, as teams negotiate with the networks. That’s the basis of the RSN structure — it’s out of MLB’s hands. So if it defaults back to MLB, there may be more streaming options.

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What to know about MLB streaming rights

One of the other confusing thing about MLB is its distribution is further diluted by streaming rights.

Last season MLB rolled out select games on Apple TV+ and Peacock nationally. If teams are playing on either of those services, they are blacked out locally.

Further adding to the confusion is individual rights. The Yankees, for example, played 21 games on Amazon last season that often competed with Apple. New York still played on MLB.TV in that case, but in the New York market streamers were forced to Amazon Prime to watch.

Most RSNs require cable logins to watch, and Bally Sports+ was $189 for the year and $19.99 per month in 2022. It’s unclear what will happen to subscribers at this time.

The overarching point Manfred seemed to be trying to convey was that fans should still have access to their local teams throughout the 2023 season, one way or another. But the means of which fans will watch depends on the next 30 days with DSG.


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