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New network name, but Lightning TV dispute still leaves fans in limbo

The longer the carriage fee dispute that prevents fans from watching games on Bally Sports Sun goes on, the more they feel alienated.
The Rays and Lightning's local TV rights-holder has a new name, changing to Bally Sports Sun from Fox Sports Sun, but some fans still can't watch games because of a carriage fee dispute.
The Rays and Lightning's local TV rights-holder has a new name, changing to Bally Sports Sun from Fox Sports Sun, but some fans still can't watch games because of a carriage fee dispute. [ Bally Sports ]
Published Apr. 1
Updated Apr. 3

TAMPA — Ron Hytoff has been a Lightning fan since moving to Tampa Bay in 1997. The 75-year-old retiree has depended on TV to follow his favorite hockey team even before the coronavirus pandemic prevented fans from attending games.

For Hytoff and many other local fans, this has been a frustrating season. The Lightning are playing well in their defense of the Stanley Cup title, but as a Frontier cable subscriber, Hytoff has been unable to watch games live because Frontier no longer carries the regional sports network that broadcasts the games: Bally Sports Sun, formerly Fox Sports Sun, a name change that took effect Wednesday.

It’s the same situation for subscribers to streaming services Hulu and YouTubeTV, which also don’t carry the holder of the Lightning’s TV rights because of a longstanding dispute over carriage fees — the fees cable and streaming companies pay network owners to carry their networks — between Bally Sports Sun’s owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and cable providers and streamers.

Related: No easy solutions inside Lightning TV mess

Hytoff, a former president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital who lives in Avila, said changing subscribers would involve getting technicians to come in and replace all his electronics. So instead of watching games live, he relies on the condensed highlights posted online after games.

“I have found a way to at least watch the highlights the following day on my computer,” Hytoff said. “The NHL publishes about a five- to nine-minute summary of all games, and one can choose the Lightning. That is the best suggestion I can make to all the fans out there who Frontier can care less about.”

Lightning fans aren’t alone. In all, the 21 Bally Sports regional networks hold the rights for 42 NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball teams, including the Lightning and Rays locally. For Lightning fans who can’t watch the games live, their allegiance is being tested.

Seminole Heights resident Peter deGolian, 59, finds himself instead watching other teams’ games on the NHL Network.

“If I were a Lightning executive,” said deGolian, who attended a few games a year before the pandemic, “I would be asking myself, ‘How many of our fans are sitting home watching livestreams of our competitors because our games are not widely available in the local market?’ What impact is that going to have on the loyalty of our youngest viewers that are our future fans? It is sad because my (8-year-old) son and I used to enjoy watching the games together.”

No easy, or quick, solutions

The Lightning are trying to make it back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, but watching the team play has proven difficult this season for many fans.
The Lightning are trying to make it back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, but watching the team play has proven difficult this season for many fans. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning make approximately $10 million annually from Bally Sports to be the local rights holder, a significant amount in any year but even more so during the pandemic. The length of the team’s current contract hasn’t been disclosed.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Lightning CEO Steve Griggs said the team has “encouraged both sides to work in a timely manner towards a resolution so that all of Bolts Nation can watch our quest for another Stanley Cup.”

“The Lightning understand the frustrations of fans who currently aren’t able to watch games on television locally due to ongoing carriage disputes between Sinclair Broadcast Group and select providers,” Griggs said. “With our limited fan capacity (at Amalie Arena), we want as many Bolts fans as possible to be able to view our broadcasts. Fans still have options, and Bally Sports Sun remains widely available across Tampa Bay.”

Spectrum cable, a Lightning sponsor, and AT&T TV streaming are the two main ways fans can watch games on Bally Sports Sun.

Bally Sports reports that ratings for Lightning games on the regional network are up 23 percent in viewership from last season but down 9 percent from the Lightning’s record-breaking ratings season of 2018-19. Also, livestreaming on the Fox Sports Go app is up 43 percent year over year.

Rays fans got a taste of what their hockey counterparts have endured when the regular season opened Thursday. Team president Matt Silverman echoed sentiments similar to Griggs’: “We support Bally Sports Sun working with all providers to make Rays baseball available in every home in Tampa Bay.”

But those hoping that Bally Sports Sun will return to their channel listings may be waiting a long time. Frontier is emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And Sinclair, which took on huge debt to acquire the Fox Sports regional networks, reported a $12.551 billion debt in its fourth-quarter earnings call in February.

Both companies are looking for ways to get cash to help their financial situations. And as firm as Sinclair will hold to its carriage fee demands from Frontier, it will do the same with YouTubeTV and Hulu, which are owned by huge corporations, Google and Disney, respectively.

“It’s going to get worse, unfortunately, before it gets better,” said Elliott Wiser, an adjunct professor in journalism and digital communication at USF, “because these companies have to service enormous debt. You have the sports teams, this is their golden goose. They need to get money from their deals. And the streamers and the cable companies face enormous pressure and enormous competition.

“At the end of the day, it’s the way the system is,” said Wiser, a 38-year veteran of the media industry and a former executive of Bright House Networks (now Charter Communication/Spectrum), Bay News 9 and WTSP-Ch. 10.

“If you want to say what’s the solution, I think you have to look at deregulation, you have to look at some other things as well. It’s just unfortunate. I think what makes it even harder this time is everyone looked at the streamers as the savior, but a lot of them are owned by very large corporations, so David has become Goliath.”

Fans could blame Sinclair for holding their regional sports networks as ransom. But that’s no different from the exclusivity that other streaming services such as Netflix, HBO Max and Disney+ feature. And as part of ESPN’s new national TV rights deal with the NHL that starts next season, fans who want to be able to watch every game of their favorite team will have to not only get their regional network and ESPN, they also will have to get ESPN+ and Hulu, where some games will be exclusively offered. ESPN is owned by Disney.

Bally Sports paid Sinclair $85 million for naming rights, and the partnership with the casino brand will focus on adding gamification and sports betting elements on broadcasts and through an app that is slated to launch soon. Bally also plans to offer content direct to consumers, but that isn’t expected to happen until 2022, according to February’s earnings call.

“The days of sports being ubiquitous and being offered everywhere, those are over,” Wiser said. “The one thing that we’ve known for many years in the media business, when you do research, the two things that will draw people to a channel are going to be live sporting events and live breaking news. And that’s why ESPN for many years … (was) getting over $5 per subscriber, because they had live sports.

“Let’s face it, the National Hockey League, MLB, they’re not dumb. The days of giving everything to just one provider, it will never, ever happen again. You have a better chance of Babe Ruth coming back from the dead.”

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

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

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