For some time now, Major League Baseball teams have depended on major revenues from local regional sports networks (RSNs), entities which themselves have depended on cable providers paying high per-subscriber fees to put those networks on the standard-cable tier. This relationship has long prevented fans from watching their local team without paying for a bulky and often expensive cable subscription. MLB.TV blacks out local games to accommodate the relationship and the revenue that comes with it. While it is not full-scale a la carte, Sling TV’s recent announcement that they will carry FOX Sports RSNs on their new offering for $20 per month is a major win for consumers and a way for MLB to keep their product relevant to those who do not subscribe to traditional cable — frequently a younger demographic that MLB desires.
MLB.TV is a very good product that streams out-of-market games. The announcement last fall that in-market streaming would be available to cable subscribers represented a small step for fans who increasingly consume the game digitally. What was missing, however — and has been missing for years — is a digital option to watch local games without also having to subscribe to a local cable provider. We’re certainly not all the way there, but the newest offering from Sling TV is a big step in the right direction, and a very good compromise for those who do not want to pay for traditional cable.
Sling TV, owned by DISH Network, began several years ago offering a skinny streaming bundle. If you had an internet connection and a smart device like a Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire, you could stream a handful of television networks for $20 per month. Sling’s current package includes networks like AMC, TNT, TBS, and — importantly for sports fans — ESPN and ESPN2. What that package did not include were any RSNs, and as a result, no local baseball games.
Sling is now offering a separate package for $20 per month that still includes AMC, TNT, and TBS, but adds multiple FOX channels, including FOX, FS1, and importantly FOX RSNs, including the Yankees YES network. Half of MLB teams have games aired on FOX RSNs, which means that roughly half of MLB fans can now stream local baseball games with an internet connection and $20 per month. For teams of the following fans, this is a really big step forward:
|Arizona Diamondbacks||FOX Sports Arizona|
|Atlanta Braves||FOX Sports South/FOX Sports Southeast|
|Cincinnati Reds||FOX Sports Cincinnati|
|Cleveland Indians||Sports Time Ohio|
|Detroit Tigers||FOX Sports Detroit|
|Kansas City Royals||FOX Sports Midwest|
|Los Angeles Angels||FOX Sports West|
|Miami Marlins||FOX Sports Florida|
|Milwaukee Brewers||FOX Sports Wisconsin|
|Minnesota Twins||FOX Sports North|
|New York Yankees||YES|
|San Diego Padres||FOX Sports San Diego|
|St. Louis Cardinals||FOX Sports Midwest|
|Tampa Bay Rays||FOX Sports Sun|
|Texas Rangers||FOX Sports Southwest|
This product reaches baseball fans whom a combination of blackout rules and the current cable model have prevented from watching their favorite teams. As young people drop cable or refuse ever to acquire it in the first place, MLB is in danger of losing those local fans unwilling to pay more than $100 per month to get internet and cable. Internet is likely still a necessity for most, but this product has the opportunity to reach those who might be willing to pay a smaller amount for cable channels, including those which broadcast their local MLB games. Subscribers will also soon be able to access streaming games via the FOX Sports Go app as well.
While the paragraphs above amount to a glowing review of Sling TV’s recent announcement, it’s important to note that there are negatives to this product, as well. For those fans of multiple sports hoping for one product to meet all their viewing needs, this is not the answer. While ESPN is offered by Sling, it’s available only as part of a separate $20 package. For those who want a streaming package outside of those made available by standard cable providers, PlayStation’s Vue has multiple offerings for around $40-$50 per month that include channels like ESPN as well as many RSNs not owned by FOX . At this point, we move away from our a la carte desires and closer to the cable bundle that has been ruling television for years.
While most of the channels in Sling’s two packages are the same, one features a handful of Disney channels, including ESPN, while the other features FOX-owned channels. ESPN’s package is a single-stream package, meaning consumers can watch only on one device at a time, while the FOX package offers multi-stream possibility, where more than one device can watch at a time. While ESPN might be considered the linchpin to the single-stream package, Disney has fears that this model could grow and cut into the standard cable packages. As a result, if Sling goes over 2 million subscribers, Disney can opt out, per the Wall Street Journal. The FOX package, which allows streaming on multiple devices, contains no such provision. As of February, the Wall Street Journal reported Sling TV had roughly 600,000 subscribers.
As should be expected, given the price and campaign toward those who are dissatisfied with cable, the channel lineup is far from complete. If you want local channels, you should use an antenna. FOX will appear on the multi-stream option in some markets. For ABC, consumers would have to buy the single-stream package and pay another five dollars for ABC. Other networks like CBS and NBC are not available.
Noticeably absent from any of the Sling packages are sports channels owned by Comcast, DIRECTV, or Time Warner Cable. The Sling TV package threatens to cut into their business as providers, so each of that threesome have a disincentive to become a part of any skinny bundle like this one or the one offered by Verizon. The timing of this product, as well as the prevalence of the YES Network in its advertising, is not coincidental. YES and Comcast are in a carriage dispute in the New York area covering close to 1 million homes. Sling is offering a cheap alternative so that fans of the Yankees can still watch the team even if they choose not to drop Comcast. Getting half of MLB teams in a cheaper package is great news, but we cannot expect the rest of the teams to follow suit any time soon. This will not help the Dodgers fans, for example, who are currently caught between Time Warner Cable and the local cable providers in Los Angeles.
It’s possible this news will not receive the same type of coverage that the in-market streaming received in November. Rob Manfred has not made an announcement about this agreement like he did last fall, but the Sling TV announcement is a much bigger deal. For $20 per month, fans of half the teams in baseball can receive in-market streaming without a standard cable subscription. Yes, this is still technically a cable bundle, but for many fans, getting the broadcasts of their favorite team might be worth $20 per month, especially with other standard cable channels. This is not a la carte programming, per se, but it’s closer than we have been in a really long time, and some recognition that the gigantic cable bundle is not the be all end all for baseball fans.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.