Could Coronavirus Kill the Regional Sports Network?

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?¬† Continue reading →