Detroit Tigers fans may see another change in how they watch their favorite team in the near future. Bally regional sports network is facing challenges that may spell an end to its deal with Major League Baseball to broadcast games in local markets.
As it’s currently the only way to watch most Tiger games in the state, it would create a lot of questions for fans and Michigan sports bettors who spend their summer nights watching the team.
Sinclair massively overpaid for MLB regional broadcast rights
A recent court hearing included incriminating testimony which doesn’t bode well for the future of Bally Sports. According to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, Sinclair, who owns the RSN, threatened to sink the networks if the league didn’t accept cheaper payments for the rights.
Earlier this year, Bally Sports bailed on a commitment to broadcast games for the San Diego Padres, which could mean baseball fans will see things change on their TV screens once again. It was only two years ago that Bally stamped its name onto the RSN’s following years of being owned by Fox Sports (as in Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports Ohio, and so on).
The RSN is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group & Entertainment Studios and operated under its Diamond Sports Group division. Sinclair bought the RSN and the rights to broadcast sports in 21 local markets in 2019. In 2021, it sold the naming rights to Bally Sports, a gaming company that also produces content for the pregame and game broadcasts, but otherwise does not have any ownership in the RSN.
But, Sinclair claims the value of the broadcast rights, which includes Tigers games on Bally Sports Detroit and 12 other markets with MLB games, has dropped dramatically. It also clearly overpaid for the RSNs. According to MLB, Sinclair paid $900 million more than the next closest bid to acquire the networks from Fox Sports. Now, only a few years into the deal, they have buyer’s remorse.
In May, Sinclair announced it could not afford to produce Padres games while also paying the broadcast fees to MLB. In negotiations, Sinclair CEO David Smith told Manfred that he would bankrupt Diamond Group and the RSN if MLB didn’t accept a much lower rate.
MLB scrambled to secure alternate broadcast partners for Padres games, and rescued the fan base by providing games on a combination of streaming and broadcast platforms.
Future of Tigers broadcasts on Bally Sports seems uncertain
It seems likely that Sinclair will follow a similar path with its other commitments to MLB broadcasts in all markets, including Detroit.
Bally Sports, which paid just to have its name on the broadcasts, is stuck in the middle. The future of Tigers games on Bally Sports Detroit is uncertain.
Tigers fans are used to changes in television broadcasts. In the 1980s, the Tigers were one of the first MLB teams to appear on a regional cable network, when Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) debuted. That network, which originated in Detroit, lasted from 1984 to 1997, airing as many as 75 games each season. Eventually it was sold to a group that flipped it to Fox Sports as part of its RSN in the early 2000s.
Tigers games are only available on TV in the Michigan market via Bally Sports. No broadcast TV network has a deal with MLB for rights to games, other than national games on a rotating basis. Tigers games are available online via MLB.TV, but only in markets outside the broadcast reach of Detroit and Michigan cable network areas. These are known as “blackout restrictions.”
Exodus to streaming services could end RSN model
Many fans have decried the blackout policy by MLB and other leagues, arguing that it limits options and requires expensive cable subscriptions. Given the changes in viewing habits of consumers, regional sports networks and their geo-centric model may be a thing of the past.
According to research by Insider Intelligence in 2022, more than 46 million American households have eliminated cable subscriptions from their budget. More consumers are now choosing streaming packages and a la cart options. But local sports programming, specifically many MLB, NBA, and NHL markets, are still tied to the regional sports network system, which is largely bundled with cable services.
As of yet, none of the four major professional leagues in North America have offered a video broadcast package that allows fans to watch their own teams in their markets without being tied to a cable service or third-party app.
Sinclair has not threatened to halt broadcasting of any other games this year, but starting in 2024, many of their RSN contracts will begin to expire. The Tigers deal with Sinclair to have games seen on Bally Sports runs through the 2025 season.