MLB Streaming: More $$ for Them, Higher Costs and More Frustration for Us

As discussed in Fair Pay–Fair Play: Getting the Pro-Team Sports We Want at Prices We Can Afford, free-market competition forces businesses to put us first. Laura Dressman, spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble’s Family Care division, explained why the company makes so many roll sizes of Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper— Big, Large, Double, Family, Giant, Jumbo, and Mega: “Our product offerings are driven by ‘consumer is boss.’ Some consumers want a larger size roll for a bigger family or prefer not to have to change the roll as often. Others prefer smaller packs due to limited storage space.”

The respect we get as consumer/customer-boss isn’t limited to situations like being able to choose the package of toilet paper to fit our lifestyle. Entertainment companies know we are the boss and they produce and distribute programming to get our choice. Their TV shows will have star, or hope-to-be star, actors and actresses telling a well-scripted, relatable story. Their goal is to get us to tune in to the same channel each week (or set our DVR) so we won’t miss an episode.

Pro-team sports TV programming has some of the same elements. The teams and players are the stars of every game broadcast and the announcers are the supporting cast. Because the vast majority of baseball, basketball and hockey games are aired on a regional sports network (RSN) the announcing crews provide play-by-play calls and color commentary that make each game description comfortably familiar. In a baseball game, it’s the familiar banter between the announcing crew and their familiar home run calls and strike out calls.

Of course, there is one key difference between these forms of entertainment. As a viewer, we can choose between any number of scripted comedies or dramas distributed on a TV network or a streaming service. As a fan of My Team, we have no choice.

Leagues and teams understand the one-of-a kind nature of pro-team sports. As NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in 2016 “Live premium sports content is clearly king these days.”

This is why all four leagues can demand, and get, huge rights fee deals from major networks for national broadcast rights and baseball, basketball and hockey teams demand and get huge rights fee deals from RSNs for the remainder (which is the bulk) of their schedule. We pay in the form of sports-fee laden cable TV bills.

 These same dynamics are now playing out with streaming TV services. A January 31, 2022 Wall Street Journal story described the streaming marketplace:

The proliferation of streaming services has given users an array of options. HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, Apple TV+ and Discovery Inc.’s Discovery+ have entered the field since 2019, while ViacomCBS Inc. has rebranded and expanded its CBS All Access service, now known as Paramount+. All are fighting for market share with more established players including Netflix Inc., Amazon  Inc.’s Prime Video and Disney-controlled Hulu.

That report also noted how streaming companies can gain (and then lose) customers because they operate on a monthly subscription basis. The answer for streaming companies is—yup, you guessed it—live sports as noted in a March 11, 2022 Wall Street Journal story:

Streaming services are finding live sports to be a major draw in their push to sign up viewers and subscribers—just as they have long been in the traditional TV world. Streamers like Apple and Peacock “need more ammunition,” said Daniel Cohen, senior vice president of global media-rights consulting at Octagon. “And nothing is better when it comes to being an audience aggregator than live sports.”

A week later, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the same thing: “I believe that live sports content has a unique ability to attract people to platforms.”

Knowing this, MLB recently signed rights-fee deals with Apple+ and Peacock that begin with the 2022 season. The Apple+ deal was $85 million per year over 5 years for the exclusive rights to broadcast 2 games every Friday night (about 50 games per season) and the Peacock deal was $30 million per year over 2 years for the exclusive rights to broadcast 18 Sunday games per season.

So, what does this mean for us fans? First, we’ll pay more. The first game on Peacock will also be available on NBC, but the remaining 17 will only be shown on their subscription tier. So, fans paying a cable sports service fee to see most of their My Team games on their RSN will need to pony up $4.99 more to see their My Team games on Peacock. Games on Apple+ will, for a time, be free.

Second, we’ll hear game calls from people we don’t know. This is how Brandon Contes reacted to the news in his March 30, 2002 story on “As a Mets fan, I’ll be locked in to Scherzer’s first start on Apple TV, but more than being annoyed because I have to watch on a streaming service, I’m bothered that it’s game two of the season and I’m already forced to watch without Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.”

And third, life will get much more confusing.

Contes story also reported on a recent rant by Sirius XM Sports Radio personality Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo: “Their (referring to WFAN) whole show today is listening to the angry old man call up the radio station ‘get off my lawn’ all ticked off that he can’t see Scherzer’s first start because god help him, he doesn’t know how to figure out Apple TV. And he isn’t the only one.”

No, he isn’t. Even the presumably tech-savvy 20-somethings are struggling with the new, MLB imposed, reality. “I’m going to sit down on a Saturday and not know which app I need to use to watch a ballgame that day,” said Joshua Diemert, a 27-year-old Yankees fan who writes for the blog Pinstripe Alley. “It is just not a convenient way to deliver baseball to people.” (The Yankees also have a streaming deal with Prime Video for some of their games in addition to games played on YES (RSN) or ESPN or Fox.)

It’s not hard to imagine the baseball, basketball and hockey monopolists doing deals with more streaming companies. We’ll be stuck with higher costs (more monthly subscription fees) to follow our My Team, stuck with listening to unfamiliar announcing crews, and stuck with the growing challenge of finding the games.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, the games involving these “civic assets” (their words) were owned and operated as civic assets with their games broadcast on a no-fee cable network that had a companion no-fee streaming service.



Fair Pay–Fair Play: Getting the Pro-Team Sports We Want at Prices We Can Afford, pages 3-8, 40, 4447, 51, and 81.
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