More people are cutting the cable and satellite cord than ever. According to a survey by Deloitte, a greater number of consumers now subscribe to streaming services than traditional TV offerings.
For fans of a handful of Major League Baseball teams, though, cable and satellite are the only options to catch the game. The Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners, and my own Washington Nationals all make streaming their games difficult for local supporters.
The reasons that these teams won’t stream their games online vary from deals the teams made with TV providers to internal leadership issues. But as traditional cable and satellite continue to see subscriber numbers plummet—they lost almost 1.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone by one estimate—something will have to give.
Six teams still strike out
For 24 of MLB’s 30 franchises, you don’t have to sign up for a cable or satellite bundle because at least one of the following TV streaming services carries the regional sports network created to broadcast their games: AT&T’s (T) DirecTV Now, Dish Network’s (DISH) Sling TV, the sports-centric FuboTV, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and Sony’s PlayStation Vue.
You may not have an enormous choice of online services—the Red Sox’s NESN, for instance, is available only on YouTube TV, Vue and Fubo—but you at least have an alternative to your cable or satellite service and its endlessly-increasing fees.
For fans of those non-streaming teams, their video-carriage arrangements amount to “get cable or satellite or get out.”
Signing up for baseball’s own MLB.tv won’t help, either, thanks to regional blackouts the service imposes on live broadcasts of the home team, even for road games.
These blackout boundaries can exceed the size of small Central American countries; Des Moines MLB.tv viewers, for instance, can’t watch the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Minnesota Twins or the St. Louis Cardinals.
Different but equally unconvincing excuses
With the Orioles and the Nats, the likeliest explanation is the ownership structure of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network they share. The Orioles have majority control of MASN, but that team’s management has been stuck in limbo due to owner Peter Angelos’ failing health.
(MASN spokesman David Lee emailed that he had no update on the network’s distribution plans.)
The Dodgers, meanwhile, may have priced their sports network out of the market when they got Time Warner Cable, today part of Spectrum (CHTR), to pay $8.3 billion for 25 years of distribution rights to their SportsNet LA. Spectrum needs to make that up by charging other TV providers a premium to carry that network—but six years later, other cable and satellite operators continue to balk at Spectrum’s demands.
You can’t blame streaming-video providers for also refusing to get gouged by Spectrum, although SportsNet LA representative Stacey Mitch did not say if any such discussions had happened.
AT&T, which owns the SportsNet networks for the Rockies, Pirates and Mariners, represents the greatest mystery here. You can watch those networks on AT&T’s DirecTV satellite service, but not its DirecTV Now online service—which also lost out on the company’s one nod towards cord-cutting when the Astros’ SportsNet Southwest network inked its Fubo deal.
“I have no idea about AT&T’s strategy here,” shrugged Michael Nathanson, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, in an email.
Anne Marie Damron, a spokeswoman for the AT&T Warner Media subsidiary that runs those networks, declined to comment.
This is silly
Two years ago, sports-network executives might have been forgiven for telling themselves that cord-cutting didn’t pose a fundamental threat to their existing distribution.
But today, the evidence is overwhelming, and the rush to the exits is accelerating. In the fourth quarter of 2018, MoffettNathanson reported the highest ever rate of cord cutting–cable and satellite operators lost 4.1% of their subscribers, a net loss of 985,000.
The Kagan subsidiary of S&P Global Intelligence (SPGI), the source of the 1.1 million lost-subscriptions estimate cited earlier, estimated that traditional pay-TV providers lost a full 4 million subscribers over 2018, up from 3.6 million subscriptions gone in 2017 and 1.8 million in 2016.
Sports networks have a shot at recovering this viewership if they will shut up and take the money of customers who have fled traditional pay TV. But ignoring the slow demise of old-school pay TV is as delusional as sending in your closer to pinch-hit in the National League.
No manager would keep his job in baseball with that kind of judgment. But when it comes to standing on the wrong side of television history, the standards for network executives appear to be lower.
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