Major League Baseball Season Opens With New National Anthem: Oh Say, Can You Stream?

The 2023 Major League Baseball season opens Thursday, boasting a new official advertising slogan: “Baseball is Something Else.”

In terms of media presence, that phrase definitely rings true. This season, a sport known for its decades of history on radio and TV will see direct-to-consumer streaming become an even bigger conduit to fans. Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Peacock are back with exclusive game packages and regional sports networks like YES, NESN and Bally Sports have all gone “over the top” with pricey new subscription offerings. ESPN+ will also stream games almost daily, though on a non-exclusive basis as online mirrors of regional telecasts. Fox Sports, another media partner of MLB, streams via its Fox Now app, which requires a pay-TV subscription.

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This week’s runup to Opening Day has seen a couple of significant announcements, with Prime Video announcing a new batch of 20 games, mostly on Wednesdays. The tech giant is already a partner in the YES Network, which produces the Prime Video streams of MLB games. YES also just revealed plans for a subscription streaming outlet costing a hefty $25 a month, bringing New York Yankees games to subscribers outside of the traditional pay-TV bundle.

Bally Sports+, a streamer connected to the 19 Bally regional sports networks run by the Sinclair Broadcast-backed Diamond Sports Group, and NESN+ will have full baseball seasons for the first time. They debuted midway through last year.

More and more players are stepping onto the streaming field in large part because pay-TV continues to shrink. Last year saw an increase in cord-cutting, with major providers shedding almost 6 million subscribers, and the trend shows no sign of abating. For baseball, formerly known as America’s Pastime but now battling to stay relevant and revive interest among younger fans and would-be Little Leaguers, the media drama comes at a time of transformation on the field as well. Rules changes such as the introduction of a pitch clock, larger bases (intended to encourage more stealing) and a ban on the infield shift are aimed at speeding up play. Average game times have crept up by nearly 30 minutes, passing the 3-hour mark, and fewer balls have been put in play as the caliber of pitching has improved. The result can be a tedious viewing experience for even the most loyal fan.

With the bottom dropping out of the traditional RSN business model — a shift exacerbated by Covid, which wiped out months of games in 2020 and cast a shadow into 2021 — baseball has suffered more than other sports. The NFL, for example, operates on a national model, doing business with a handful of rights holders. Diamond recently entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. AT&T Sports Networks, two RSNs operated by Warner Bros Discovery, indicated they may not have enough cash to pay for rights fees this season. RSNs still throw off cash, even with declining distribution, but a complication with baseball has been how highly market-specific the viewership tends to be. Pricing for the streaming versions of the regional networks is in the $20 to $25 range per month — well north of other streaming offerings in the market. The bet is that fans are passionate enough to meet the steep price.

As the economics of linear broadcasting have deteriorated and the profitability streaming has remained unproven, the leagues — especially MLB but also the National Hockey League and others — have leaned toward reclaiming the rights they long sold off to the highest bidder. Asked about the rights issue Wednesday in an appearance at the Paley Center in New York, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed, “There will be a relaxation of the exclusivity that has historically existed in the cable bundle.”

One potential scenario widely discussed is MLB itself operating a streaming service with regional options for fans of certain teams. It already has MLB TV, a linear network with select game broadcasts, but entering the direct-to-consumer business would be a significant milestone. In another wrinkle, a division called MLB Advanced Media, or BAM Tech, was acquired by Disney. That technology would underlie any streaming offering mobilized by the league, which calls into question the strategic plans for ESPN, one of Disney’s main operating units. For the moment, ESPN is hewing to its traditional pay-TV roots, even as it grows ESPN+ as a complementary streaming business. CEO Bob Iger has recently indicated that ESPN will not be spun off or sold, a shift from the positioning of former CEO Bob Chapek, who spoke publicly about entertaining overtures for the sports brand.

Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie, believes the demise of RSNs could be “a catalyst for more dramatic moves toward sports streaming.” In a recent note to clients, he wondered, “How is this sustainable if the pay-TV business supporting it is crumbling? Streaming has to be the answer, in our view, and it has to evolve beyond the current model.”

For viewers eager to enjoy the 2023 season, though, streaming hasn’t been greeted as a panacea. Baseball fans are largely creatures of habit and fond of tradition. Baseball lore stems from everything from singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch to tuning into the same channel to hear familiar announcers game after game. The streaming era, like the pitch clock, is inherently different.

Jimmy Traina, a columnist and podcaster for Sports Illustrated, has long ranted about streaming in general. This week, he focused his ire on his team, the Yankees. “If you’re a Yankees fan who likes to watch the vast majority of regular-season games, you already need to pay in some way, shape or form via cable or some other bundle, for the YES Network, ESPN, Fox, FS1, TBS, Apple TV+ and Peacock,” he wrote. “And now you have to pay for Amazon Prime.” He added, “I love how baseball loves to spew the ‘grow the game’ garbage yet you have absolutely no idea where your team’s game is airing on a daily basis.’”

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