The state of sports broadcasting is bizarre. I’m speaking especially now about regional sports networks (RSNs) but it’s more general than that.
For example, the NFL is a mess. True, by putting up an antenna, you can generally watch two games Sunday afternoon and one game Sunday night. If you get cable or a live TV streaming service, you can also watch Monday Night Football on ESPN. But Thursday Night Football? You now need Amazon Prime for that.
And unlike MLB or NBA, there is no league pass to allow you to watch whatever games you want (with limitations). True, the NFL offers such a service — but not to people in the United States! Those people are stuck with NFL+, which allows viewers to watch local and primetime games — but only on their phones and tablets.
But overall, the NFL is very nationwide in nature. MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS are all the opposite. They each (in different ways) allow fans to watch out-of-market games via specific services. For example, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can sign up for NBA League Pass and stream any game I like as long as it does not involve my local team, the Golden State Warriors.
The problem is that most people are primarily interested in their local teams. Just watch the local news and you’ll see! So if you want to watch your local team, you need to subscribe to a special kind of channel: a regional sports network, or RSN.
RSNs exist primarily to air particular local teams. For example, Bally Sports West exists primarily to air Los Angeles Angels (MLB) and Los Angeles Kings (NHL) games. If you live in Los Angeles, you simply must get this particular channel to watch 150+ Angels games and 70+ Kings games. And it ain’t cheap. Currently, your only online option is DIRECTV STREAM, which will cost you $89.99/mo.
But why is this? Why should local fans have fewer, more expensive, options than fans far away? History. It all comes down to the idea of a blackout. Originally, teams didn’t want their games broadcast locally because then people wouldn’t come out to the ballpark.
This doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Even in the MLB, roughly half the money teams make is from TV contracts — and more is from local channels (RSNs) than national channels. But even if that were different, that would just be a reason to get rid of the RSN contracts themselves.
(Note: many RSNs are owned by the teams themselves. But Bally Sports is still dominant with 19 different channels. Why the Angels and Kings haven’t gotten together to put their own channel together, I can’t say. But the Angeles do own a quarter of the current RSN.)
Location Location Location
Most RSNs have coverage areas that at least make sense. Bally Sports Arizona, for example, covers all of Arizona and some parts of New Mexico.
But consider fans in Hawaii. There are really not in the Angels’ broadcast area in any real sense. But there are from an accounting standpoint. In fact, viewers in Hawaii get access to all seven of the California RSNs. So Hawaii is parts of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco!
RSNs Are Small
But as much as I’d love to see there be a simple system for fans to watch games, I’m largely in favor of the RSNs. I hate to see behemoths like Bally Sports but the truth is, each individual channel is pretty small.
And they show all the signs of that. HotDog noted that Bally Sports West has had 7 different names in its lifetime — including Fox Sports West twice! And it’s been owned by three different companies.
Bad for Fans
There is no doubt that it’s all bad for fans. You shouldn’t need a treasure map to be a Lakers fan. And there is no direct reason to keep the system as it is since it mostly just rewards those who already have power in the system.
The problem is that if we changed the system, that would just give more power to the already unreasonably powerful leagues. And I’m not keen on that.
Much better to check out less popular sports. Over the last year, I’ve really become a fan of softball. It’s way more fun to watch than baseball!
Image cropped from Gregorio Petit by EricEnfermero under CC BY-SA 4.0.