On Thursday, an interesting story came out from the Chicago Sun-Times that could rock the Chicago sports media landscape. According to Jeff Agrest, three Chicago teams could partner to build a new television network.
The magic date is October 2024. That’s when NBC Sports Chicago’s contracts with the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox will expire. The fact that all three come due at the same time creates an opportunity for the three — two of which are owned by the Reinsdorf family (which owns the Bulls and White Sox) — to follow the Cubs’ model and launch their own channel.
And, “according to industry insiders” per Agrest’s report, the discussion is on the table. Or at least, that’s what they want everyone in the industry to believe.
These three teams may legitimately want to create something completely new in Chicago … or they may want to pressure NBC (part owners of NBC Sports Chicago) to improve the terms of their next deal. Or they might even want to squeeze NBC out of the picture, while keeping things largely the same. Just some important points to keep in mind.
The story outlines the timeline for the Cubs to launch the Marquee Network with Sinclair Broadcasting, and it’s comparable to where we’re at right now with NBCSN and these three teams. The Cubs announced intent to launch their own network in 2015, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the partnership with Sinclair and the name Marquee were revealed.
Marquee Network went live in 2020. To say the timing was less-than-optimal is a massive understatement; the pandemic delayed that Cubs’ season and the deal between Sinclair and Xfinity for rights wasn’t reached until the 11th hour.
With the pandemic (hopefully) in the rearview mirror, the timing could be stronger for a deal to be made with these three teams going out on their own. However, Marquee has added Chicago Sky games and Cubs minor league games to its menu of live offerings.
Welcome back SportsVision?
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember back in the day (the 1980s, specifically) when SportsVision showed up on the scene. It didn’t work; maybe it was just 35 years too early?
With the Reinsdorf family owning both the White Sox and Bulls, they could follow the path of the YES Network in New York, which covers the Yankees and Brooklyn Nets. But the thought that the Wirtz family, which entertained the SportsVision ideal four decades ago, would stick with their United Center partners for a new network makes sense.
According to the Sun-Times report, Bally Sports is expected to launch a streaming service for its collection of RSNs this year, starting in June with five MLB teams (Brewers, Marlins, Rays, Royals and Tigers). And NESN (Boston) already has a streaming platform for Red Sox and Bruins games (see: an NHL/MLB partnership).
If the teams wholly owned the network, the ability to be more agile and adjust to the ever-changing content mediascape would be more realistic. Offering a streaming service in addition to a cable network would give all of the involved teams the ability to create multiple new revenue opportunities across the different layers of customer/fan engagement.
A dying medium
As CNBC reported in November of 2021, RSN’s aren’t as appealing as they once were.
The local sports saga is playing out in markets across the U.S. as cable and satellite TV companies abandon regional sports networks, or RSNs. Rather than accept large monthly subscription fees, pay-TV providers like Comcast, DirecTV and Dish, and digital providers such as YouTube TV and Hulu, are increasingly walking away to keep costs down.
They’ve decided the amount they have to pay to keep RSNs in the bundle no longer makes economic sense, given how few people watch them and how much they charge.
Other than ESPN, RSNs are the most expensive networks in the bundle. Many charge more than $5 per month per subscriber, according to research firm Kagan, a subdivision of S&P Global. Cable bills have to rise to support the added cost, which leads to more cancellations.
That story also notes that 25 million customers have cut the cord with cable since 2012 and analysts expect another 12-25 million to follow suit in the coming 3-4 years.
At the end of 2021, NBC Sports Network (the national network) ceased operations. NBC Universal made that decision to move its sports rights to other owned channels (like USA) to get more eyeballs on their sports content. Local NBC-owned RSNs were separate businesses and did not fold at that time.
NBC has since lost its rights to the NHL to deals with both Turner and Disney; TNT and ESPN have had games starting with the 2021-22 season.
Sinclair, which partnered with the Cubs on Marquee, holds a significant interest in the RSN game. Disney was forced to sell 21 RSNs by the Department of Justice when it acquired Fox’s entertainment assets for $71.3 billion in 2019 because of antitrust concerns. Sinclair reportedly paid $10.6 billion for the 21 networks in 2019.
Many of those former networks, which were branded under the Fox umbrella, were renamed Bally Sports Networks in March 2021. The Bally Sports Regional Networks are operated by Diamond Sports Group, a joint-venture company of the Sinclair Broadcast Group and Entertainment Studios with the naming rights sold to the Bally casino operator.
In May, Sinclair announced the closure of a new $635 million credit facility that will be used to grow Diamond Sports Group’s now 19 Bally Sports-branded RSNs.