Rays and Lightning on TV no longer a given, but a luxury

John Romano | Rising cost of TV rights fees are forcing cable companies and streaming services to choose between affordable prices and live sports.
The TV rightsholder for local Lightning and Rays broadcasts has been rebranded to Bally Sports Sun from Fox Sports Sun.
The TV rightsholder for local Lightning and Rays broadcasts has been rebranded to Bally Sports Sun from Fox Sports Sun. [ Sinclair Broadcasting Group ]
Published April 10, 2021|Updated April 10, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The emails started coming months ago when the Lightning season was only just beginning.

At first, it was just a trickle. Mostly curious, but a little frustrated. Readers wanting to know why they couldn’t get Lightning games from their TV provider. Eventually, the emails started to grow in number, and frustration turned to exasperation.

By the time the Rays season began last week, and Bally Sports Sun was still unavailable to thousands of Tampa Bay area homes, I was getting a steady supply of outraged emails wondering why this dispute was not being settled.

Here’s the unfortunate answer: Because it’s not a dispute, it’s a stalemate.

This is likely the new landscape in regional sports channels, and the border wars are only going to grow. What we once considered standard programming is going to become more and more of an a la carte service. Sort of like airlines charging you for your luggage and meals.

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

Who is to blame for this?

I could point my finger at everyone along the food chain. We could start with the regional sports networks such as Bally (formerly Fox Sports Sun), because they’re the ones who carry the games on their channels. Except Bally has to charge more for providers because baseball and hockey and basketball teams are charging the networks more for their rights fees. And the teams are looking to capitalize on rights fees in order to keep pace with shortstops making $34 million a year, and point guards making $40 million.

I could even point the finger back at some of you.

It might have seemed like a good idea to cut the cord on your cable provider a couple of years ago because streaming services were so much cheaper than Spectrum, but now you’re starting to understand why. YouTube and Hulu can charge a lot less than a traditional cable company because they’re not willing to pay the fees that Bally deems necessary to run their networks.

This isn’t a dispute, it’s a choice.

A company such as Hulu might lose some subscribers because they’re not carrying Rays and Lightning games, but they’ve decided their business model works better with cheaper rates and fewer sports channels.

And that means the consumer now has to decide whether to sign up for Spectrum, DirecTV or AT&T Streaming to watch ballgames, or stay with a cheaper cable or streaming service and read what happened when the games are over.

For their part, the Lightning and Rays can say this situation is out of their control and, in a sense, that is true. It’s not like Bally is negotiating with a Tampa Bay version of YouTube and the Lightning can act as referee. This discussion is happening in markets across the nation and so the solution — or the stalemate, as it turns out — is being decided well beyond Tampa Bay’s reach.

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But that doesn’t mean the Rays and Lightning do not have something at stake.

If fewer people have access to games on TV, that means fewer people are devoted fans. It also means sponsors and advertisers may not see the product as valuable as it once was. And cord cutters are more likely to be young adults, which means the NHL and MLB are messing with the next generation of ticket buyers and T-shirt purchasers.

So is there a solution?

Yes, but it may take time to find the sweet spot. Just as cable companies have provided channels such as HBO for an extra fee, regional sports networks could be offered the same way. If you want Bally on, say, Frontier or Hulu, it’s going to cost you more money each month.

Another possibility is selling directly to the consumer. You can already buy MLB.TV as a streaming service or Extra Innings from your cable company for around $125 a season. Those services provide every out-of-market game. Eventually, the leagues could work a deal with the regional sports networks to offer the local TV package on a pay-per-view style basis, too.

In some ways, that would be a more democratic system. If only 25 percent of Spectrum’s customers watch Rays games — and I’m pulling that number out of a hat — why is the cost spread among all of the company’s subscribers?

And while that may be the future we’re rapidly heading toward, I would caution sports leaders to consider the bigger picture. There was a time when boxing was huge in America, but promoters eventually decided to bypass networks and charge fans directly by making live fights available only via pay-per-view.

That may have been initially profitable, but it eventually turned boxing into a niche sport because a lot fans decided they could do without it.

It may seem like we’re a long way from that with hockey and baseball, but the current impasse is already forcing some fans to choose between their wallets and their teams. If I were the Rays and Lightning, I would be up at night worrying about that choice becoming too commonplace.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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