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No easy solutions inside Lightning TV mess

The providers who carry the Fox Sports regional networks are not numerous locally as the season opener approaches.
In this Feb. 4, 2020 file photo, Chris Doran, left, a cameraman for Fox Sports Sun, is on the ice covering the Lightning after a victory against the Golden Knights at Amalie Arena.
In this Feb. 4, 2020 file photo, Chris Doran, left, a cameraman for Fox Sports Sun, is on the ice covering the Lightning after a victory against the Golden Knights at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 9, 2021|Updated Jan. 9, 2021

TAMPA — The most-asked question about the Lightning heading into the upcoming season might have nothing to do with what’s happening on the ice.

With the season opener just days away, many Lightning fans face the possibility of being unable to watch games on Fox Sports Sun, the regional network that will broadcast 49 of Tampa Bay’s 56 regular-season contests. Now with the Lightning deciding to not allow fans at games for the foreseeable future, broadcasts are one of the few ways to follow the team live.

Months of carriage fees wrangling between Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns Fox Sports Sun and 20 other regional sports networks across the country that have rights for NHL, NBA and MLB teams, and the cable and streaming subscription services that no longer carry the stations likely will leave Lightning fans out in the cold when the season begins Wednesday.

The situation affects loyal cable subscribers and cord cutters alike. Frontier cable dropped the channels in September, unable to arrive at a new contractual agreement, and several streaming platforms, including popular providers Hulu and YouTube TV, no longer have the Sinclair-owned regionals in their local channel lineups. Hulu stopped carrying the channels Oct. 1 and YouTube TV stopped Oct. 22.

The primary alternative options locally are subscribing to Spectrum or XFinity cable, DirecTV satellite service or AT&T TV streaming.

“Ultimately, fans want to be able to buy and see their content, wherever, whatever screen they’re on,” said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant and president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media. “So that the ultimate solution is going to be, ‘I want to see it on a (cable) bundle or I want to see it directly to my screen. This will be a way for me to do that.’ You’re in this interim phase right now and so it’s going to be awkward and confusing and difficult, and that’s how it’s going to be until everything is wide open for everybody to to watch Lightning games.”

Through its own marketing, Sinclair points frustrated viewers toward its alternative options via the GetMyHomeTeams.com website, and says that the terms offered to streaming services like Hulu and YouTube TV were competitive to what other providers agreed to. There’s no indication that the Sinclair regionals will return to those services, or Frontier cable, any time soon, and the company is urging viewers to complain to their providers.

“Sinclair is always open to negotiations as we are eager to deliver the best in sports programming to fans everywhere,” spokesperson Michael Padovano said. “Unfortunately, certain carriers have to date been unwilling to enter into agreements consistent with other distribution deals that represent reasonable value for this content.”

A carriage fee fight between Sinclair-owned Fox Sports regional networks and the providers that have dropped the channels will likely prevent many Lightning fans from watching broadcasts on Fox Sports Sun, which means they won't see long-time fixtures like host Paul Kennedy (left) and analyst Bobby "The Chief" Taylor.
A carriage fee fight between Sinclair-owned Fox Sports regional networks and the providers that have dropped the channels will likely prevent many Lightning fans from watching broadcasts on Fox Sports Sun, which means they won't see long-time fixtures like host Paul Kennedy (left) and analyst Bobby "The Chief" Taylor. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Inquiries to Hulu and Google, which owns YouTube TV, from the Tampa Bay Times went unanswered. Frontier said the company “worked hard to negotiate a fair deal” with Sinclair to retain broadcasting rights up until their contract expired.

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“It was economically unsustainable for Frontier to continue carrying these regional sports networks, and ultimately it was Fox Regional Sports Network’s decision to remove their programming from our lineup,” Frontier Communications spokesperson Bob Elek said.

This doesn’t appear to be your typical carriage fees dispute, where eventually the parties stop digging in their heels. Across all professional sports, selling television rights is one of the biggest sources of revenue for leagues, and in a pandemic, when ticket sale profits are mostly absent, it’s even more critical to sports leagues making money. When carriage fees increase for cable and streaming companies, they are passed along to the buyer.

“I do think it is inevitable and in some ways desirable that there will be programming available on some services but not others,” said Michael Salinger, a professor for markets, public policy and law at the Boston University School of Business. “This is particularly so for sports networks, which tend to be very expensive. … Fox Sports Sun is choosing to price so that some distributors won’t carry it. That is, they are not pricing to achieve universal coverage. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a business decision. It may or may not be a sound one, but it’s their call.”

Sinclair, which purchased the regionals from Disney in August, appears poised to ultimately make their networks available on a direct-to-subscriber basis, similar to Netflix or HBO Max. After Sinclair sold naming rights to casino brand Bally’s in November, chief executive officer Chris Ripley said the company wants to find ways to connect directly with viewers rather than through carriers, which will allow it to venture into sports betting and fantasy sports. He said Sinclair had plans to unveil an app that will allow fans without cable or streaming subscriptions to purchase games directly.

Sinclair would also point out that Hulu and YouTube TV promoted live sports as a part of their services — remember the “Hulu has live sports” ad campaign? — and now have selected national networks over regional sports. In August, YouTube TV increased its basic monthly package by almost $15, then dropped the Fox Sports regionals.

What Lightning fans are going through now is no different than what fans of the Los Angeles Kings or Minnesota Wild in the NHL, or the Los Angeles Clippers or Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA endured. Tampa Bay fans who want to follow the Raptors can’t watch games if they don’t get Fox Sports Florida. And if not resolved by the time the baseball season starts, some fans won’t be able to watch Rays games locally.

“It adds to the urgency of getting something done and particularly when you’re looking to grow your market share,” Berke said. “You have fans who have nowhere else to go and that may push to get those deals done with (streamers) like the Hulus and the YouTube TVs of the world. But the problem is the pandemic has self-driven this. There have been fewer games, so there has been less urgency for them. There’s been the need to maintain subscribers and keep prices down in the midst of a pandemic and it is a very difficult economic system.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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