It might seem a little callous to speculate on implications for entertainment industries while thousands of people die every day from the COVID-19 pandemic and millions lose their jobs, but as Major League Baseball tries to figure out a way to restructure a 2020 season, the NFL opts to draft from Roger Goodell’s basement, and the NBA throws together a H-O-R-S-E tournament, I’d argue that the issues are out there and worth exploring. A disclosure: I work in broadcasting, and so much of the following article’s main points certainly fall under my personal livelihood just as much as my interests as a sports fan. There’s absolutely a conflict of interest here, but I have zero ability to change anything about the present status quo within the industry, so this is merely an opinion of someone within the trade. I’ll also be using Colorado as a bit of a microcosm for the rest of the sports broadcasting industry, as it’s my understanding the business model is generally similar to most other areas.
Since MLB Spring Training was halted, not a day has gone by where I didn’t mourn the lack of baseball or think about my beloved New York Yankees. After last season, I’ve spent the off-time oscillating between chomping at the bit for the fellas to get back on the field and worrying about injuries and contracts, like any fan. I count myself lucky that this virus has yet to touch anyone close to me and I’m an “essential worker” that’s thankfully avoided layoffs, so it feels okay to lament about how much easier a quarantine would be if there was a realistic and safe way to distract a terrified, shut-in America with a couple of its favorite pastimes. A big part of feeling like things have “gotten back to normal” will be having sports and their corresponding large gatherings back again.
I splurged on seeing the Nuggets this year and was excited to get back to Coors Field and see the Rockies more regularly than my three or four games a season. The Avalanche were on a dominant tear that undoubtedly would’ve led to a playoff run, and like every year, I had resolved that the 2019-2020 season would finally be the year I got into hockey and follow the NBA closer than highlights and playoff games. Unfortunately, a contract dispute between Colorado’s regional sports network, Altitude Sports, and every major cable or satellite provider in the state meant games from the Rockies, Avalanche, or the Nuggets would have extremely little opportunity to be televised outside of national network showcases. This is still ongoing and has led to both a potentially landmark antitrust case and local bars pirating streams to keep up traditional revenue.
Before I go on to make the case that professional sports should be broadcast on local over-the-air signals, it bears mentioning that I side with Altitude in the contract dispute with the telecommunications infrastructure providers. Regional sports networks (RSNs from here on out), have their own employees and contractors for production and reporting and are giving cable and satellite providers one of the last products cord cutters can’t legally and reliably find an alternative for (yet). To squeeze the networks for a larger share of revenue when it’s only a matter of time before RSNs start fielding streaming deals independent of cable and satellite providers a la the YES Network’s presently-in-limbo arrangements with Amazon Prime seems extremely irresponsible and short-sighted.
Altitude was already likely taking a huge financial hit with its contract dispute before the pandemic hit. It’s not available over-the-air, with YouTube TV or other streaming platforms, and costs extra on top of the base cable package. This is the case with most RSNs. Other than the NFL, most professional sports are carried exclusively on a “premium” channel. Starving for content with sports cancelled, how long could an RSN remain solvent, and could they float for months or years until society is able to safely turn a corner on COVID-19? Broadcast television production and sports journalism are both specialized trades, and there’s surely been employee furloughs and layoffs, and non-renewals for workers on contract already. Those workers and personalities, vital to the quality of the network’s product as well as at the very least partially responsible to viewer retention, might not be back.
A larger question regarding the potential of floundering RSN might be should we even have them?
The short answer is “yes, however...”
While the public’s appetite for forking over taxpayer dollars to build stadiums for wealthy franchise owners has thankfully waned over recent years, it doesn’t change the fact that in many places, the residents still at some point subsidized their professional sports teams and should not be gouged by a telecoms company to watch said teams. In-person attendance is down across most of the sports world as it is due to skyrocketing costs after catering to richer fans, youth viewership is down, and so hiding local games behind a premium channel paywall is a terrible way to ensure the long-term vitality of the product.
It’s an engagement problem. Just basing it anecdotally, I’m a two-sport fan. I find other means to watch regular season Yankee games because I’m far out-of-market and can’t justify spending more than $1,000 a year on a cable package and the entire MLB Network package which still excludes the Rockies due to local blackout restrictions. Would I pay an a la carte price or subscription fee to watch every Yankee game? Of course I would! The Rockies? Not on your life! It’s a discussion for another day as to why I’ll never be as devoted to my local National League team as I am to the team I’ve had a lifelong love affair with, but would I watch Rockies regular season games all of the time if they were broadcast on one of my local over-the-air affiliates I can receive with an antenna, basic cable, or YouTube TV? Of course I would! I love baseball and I love local sports! This premise isn’t without precedent: How many out-of-market fans of the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs exist due to the national reach of WGN and TBS in the 90s?
I do not miss Bronco games. They’ve essentially sucked since the 2016 Superbowl, but on a Sunday afternoon, excluding both my fantasy football and other gambling obligations, I find it incredibly relaxing to pull on a jersey (matching the team, of course), stretch out on my couch and scare my cat while I watch my Denver Broncos. They’re available over-the-air from one of the four local affiliates, without fail. That’s why it’s easy to commit myself to watching the increasingly enraging and rapidly declining in entertainment value product that is the National Football League. I’m a casual basketball fan but I’ve been dying to follow the Nuggets closer. I’m just not going to pay for it. I’d love to get in to hockey and the Avalanche in particular. I’m just not going to pay for it. Like many Americans, every four years I get really into soccer. Multiple times a year, I make a halfhearted decision to get into the dumpster fire Rapids franchise and go sit in the “rowdy” fan section at Dicks, but I can’t ever get the games on TV and get initiated because I’m not going to pay for it. It’s better for the sport and the fans if games are broadcast in the most accessible fashion possible. Between higher advertising revenues and broader appeal to a larger group of people, there’s more engagement ($$$) by more potential fans. This should be an absolute no-brainer.
Altitude, however, is decidedly not Fox Sports Net, which held a typical conglomerate’s nefarious stranglehold on exploiting the RSN model until relatively recently. They’re also not the YES Network, hosting teams that have large national fanbases that brings leverage to negotiating processes. To their credit, Altitude is fantastic for trade school internships and developing new broadcast technicians, new Master Control and camera operators, and giving new journalists their springboard to the larger industry. What is an RSN’s role if professional sports went OTA and college sports has been largely cornered by THEIR own divisional/RSNs like the PAC-12 network?
It’s hard to say. The virus has devastated niche market sports like rugby and lacrosse, not to say that the solution here is to turn RSNs into localized “The Ochos.” There’s likely a way to split coverage. Local network affiliates, due to scheduling, financial, and syndication obligations, probably aren’t going to want to run every baseball, hockey, and basketball game, much less commit the production resources and staff into doing so. In the event the virus doesn’t wipe out specialized regional sports broadcasting and push these kinds solutions anyway, it would be wise to take it out from behind premium channel paywalls for the good of the sports, split coverage with local OTA affiliates, and move into more specialized and in-depth coverage (training camps, talk shows, post-game/locker room broadcasts, etc). Could there be more high school coverage? Classic game replays? Branching out into more niche markets? Local MMA promotions? Major League Gaming?
There’s ideas, but ultimately it’s a raw deal for RSNs to lose a monopoly on the coverage of four-plus professional sports. Not that it matters if in the short term COVID-19 makes their viability untenable in the first place. The broadcasting model, even without the implications of how game-changing this virus is for so many industries, is not consumer friendly and in an age where there’s more competition for viewers than ever, relatively accessible pirate streams, and now broken, contentious negotiating relationships with the carriers, creating new and consumer friendly ways to access local sports might be a matter of surviving.