Twenty years ago, before the start of the 2001 baseball season, my Dad posed this question to 16-year old me: would I rather be the beneficiary of a cable TV package, or some newfangled concept known as high-speed internet? I chose the former option—though ultimately both were achieved via the magic of “bundling”—and thus began a two-decade Twins TV odyssey.
In 2004, I lived through the utter debacle of Victory Sports One, in which the Twins organization thought it could support a standalone station ala the New York Yankees. After a month or so of a largely baseball-less local market—when VS1 couldn’t comes to terms with most cable/satellite providers—rights quickly shifted back to Fox Sports North.
For the next 10 years, things were stable in carriage of regional sports networks. Come the mid-2010s, streaming services provided an even bigger boon to the consumer (no contracts!). I went from the ever-increasing prices of cable TV to the pay-by-the-month haven that was Playstation Vue, and then ultimately joined the YouTube TV fold.
The problem in recent years, of course, is that live sports are the only thing propping up traditional cable bundles. As both the content and distribution sides realize this, deals become harder to broker. In the last couple of years, FSN has been dropped by Dish Network, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, and other outlets. Currently, the only in-market methods of watching the ol’ ballgame are the $85/month tier of AT&T Live and cable companies like Spectrum or Comcast (both always highly—or would it be lowly?—rated in terms of worst customer service).
Quick history lesson: Before the 2019 season, regional sports networks—like FSN—were under the ownership of Disney after the House of Mouse merged with FOX. But owning such content represented a conflict-of-interest for Disney (apparently they can’t control every piece of content you see these days), so the channels were quickly sold to Sinclair Broadcast Group. After threatening to keep the Twins—and others—off streaming options altogether in 2020, an eleventh-hour deal was reached (perhaps aided by perceived pandemic viewership uptick). Quite literally, the day after the Twins’ regular-season finale it was “bye bye, FSN” from YouTube TV.
So, 20 years after my Dad offered me that Twins baseball “Sophie’s Choice”, I may have to make a similar decision in the coming months. One ray of hope: Sinclair is working on a platform—supported by online gambling endeavors, of all things—to bring regional sports networks directly to the consumer. Sadly, it seems a bit of a pipe dream to be fully accomplished before Opening Day 2021.
I recently wrote very polite, thoughtful feedback notes to both Sinclair and YouTube TV. I explained my dilemma and implored them to reach a deal soon. From Sinclair, I received a nice, personal message, albeit one toeing the company line of “we’ve offered fair deals to streaming services and they won’t accept”. From Google-owned YouTube TV? Crickets.
Eventually, this impasse will be broken, if only because some consumers need to be able to see Sinclair’s product in order for it to generate ad revenue. My gut feeling is that either MLB itself will purchase the streaming rights to all its teams, or the Sinclair straight-to-consumer effort will succeed. I just wish that consumers like myself—and certainly many of you reading this—weren’t the pawns on the board at the moment.