Since getting into sports programming, Sinclair has admittedly had a tough go of things.
After finalizing its purchase of 21 Fox regional sports networks (RSNs) in Q3 2019, the conglomerate has seen games cancelled en masse due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, watched consumers flock to streaming services and dealt with said streaming services dropping RSN carriage in many cases. Both the NBA and MLB balked at initial ideas around Sinclair’s own streaming service last year, and most recently, the upcoming baseball season could be in peril as MLB owners continue to lock out players over a new collective bargaining agreement.
While Sinclair’s Ballys-branded RSNs do air programming across a number of sports — including college, NBA, NHL and MLB games and surrounding coverage — the bread-and-butter of these networks has always been baseball. With live spring training and regular season games almost daily from March through September, it’s a daily content feed like no other in sports. And it’s the primary reason these RSNs can continue to exist.
MLB and the Players Association have a deadline in place ( Feb. 28) before games start getting cancelled, and MLB has already said those contests won’t be made up. Even if Sinclair was only banking on the linear RSNs, cancelled games would be cause for alarm. But of course, that’s not all that’s at stake here.
In an effort to keep up with consumers’ shifting preferences, Sinclair is still planning a DTC streaming service launch in the first half of this year, specifically focused on baseball markets. Those same markets whose RSNs currently have little to discuss around baseball aside from labor negotiations and the general idea of spring training.
Sinclair is in a difficult and unenviable position and, there’s little they can do about it but hope the two sides (still very far apart by most accounts) of baseball’s negotiations are able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and get the season started as close to on schedule as possible.
But what happens without that? For starters, Sinclair would have to pivot immediately toward NBA and NHL to launch streaming, but… those regular seasons wrap up in April and then game rights all head to national rights holders for the playoffs. So it’s college sports for some markets, and even then, conferences own those rights in most cases. Without baseball, a launch in the first half of the year would be close to impossible if Sinclair plans to market the service with live games attached to it.
Because really, live games are the draw here.
Sure, there are some fun documentaries and studio shows on RSNs, but they’re also shoulder content to the action on the field of play. You can invest millions in creating engaging shows for audiences to tune into when games aren’t happening. But the main reason people are subscribing to an RSN — on linear or streaming — is to watch their local market team play.
Sinclair’s improvements to the RSN experience also rely pretty heavily on live games. Most importantly, it’ll truly lean into the Ballys branding and introduce sports betting elements into the broadcast where legal. Without games to watch, sports betting content rings hollow. And any live sportsbook or fantasy sports competitions are out the window. Fans aren’t tuning in on streaming for a potentially better ad experience and maybe a little more interactivity… around the idea of games that won’t be airing.
After building itself a formidable stable of local broadcast affiliates across the country, Sinclair’s sports dabbling has seen the company continually swing and miss. The latest questions for Sinclair, courtesy of MLB uncertainty, could wind up striking the company out as debts steadily march well past $12 billion at this point.