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Finally, a streaming app for Lightning and Rays (wallet not included)

John Romano | Tampa Bay will be one of the first markets to get the Bally Sports app, which could be the future of programming for local sports franchises.
Tampa Bay will be one of the first markets in the nation to try out the new Bally Sports app, which is expected to become available in June for somewhere around $20 a month.
Tampa Bay will be one of the first markets in the nation to try out the new Bally Sports app, which is expected to become available in June for somewhere around $20 a month. [ Bally Sports ]
Published 2 hours ago

ST. PETERSBURG — The future of sports television is arriving soon in Tampa Bay. It sounds convenient, it’s likely to be streamlined, and it’s definitely going to cost you.

For the past two seasons, a sizable number of viewers in Tampa Bay have gone without Lightning and Rays games because Bally Sports could not reach agreement — and thus was not available — on Frontier Communications or through cord-cutting services such as YouTube TV and Hulu.

So Bally is planning to bypass the middle man and offer its programming directly to consumers through a streaming app that is expected to have a soft launch by the end of June.

The good news? Tampa Bay is one of only five markets nationally expected to take part in the initial rollout. The debatable news? It comes at a price.

While vague details of the plan were released this week, the actual cost was only hinted at. Initial reports are suggesting it will be priced in the neighborhood of $20 a month or $190 annually (which works out to about $16 a month).

“I would do that in a heartbeat,” said James Epstein, an advertising executive in Sarasota who has been unable to watch Rays games because his cable provider doesn’t carry Bally Sports. “How is it in 2022 that we are even having a conversation about not being able to watch games?”

That’s a good question. It’s also a complicated one.

Broadcast rights fees have become incredibly lucrative for franchises and, thus, terribly expensive for cable companies and streaming services. Since only a fraction of their audiences are interested in sports programming, more and more providers have declined to strike deals with regional sports channels in order to keep their overall costs lower.

That’s how you end up in a situation where only Spectrum and DirecTV are carrying Bally Sports, leaving thousands of Tampa Bay households without a televised link to the Lightning and Rays. Even buying the MLB.TV package for $130 a year doesn’t help because it blacks out local broadcasts. (Why? Because MLB teams sell those local broadcast rights to regional sports networks like Bally.)

So, for some, this was a logistical problem that the Bally streaming app will solve.

For others, it is a financial problem that could require hard choices.

If you dropped your cable service to save money and now buy your TV programming a la carte, the $20 a month charge for essentially Lightning and Rays coverage might sound expensive. Particularly if you consider a typical Netflix account, with far more content, is in the $15 range while Amazon Prime and Hulu are even cheaper.

But Bally Sports seems to banking on the idea that live sports content is unlike any other programming, and fans have already shown a willingness to pay for league-wide subscriptions for MLB and NBA games.

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So will it work?

It had better because the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is partnering with Bally Sports, is highly leveraged and in need of serious cash flow.

While Sinclair has broadcast deals with 14 MLB teams, it only has streaming rights for five of those franchises. (Which explains the soft launch in Tampa Bay, Miami, Detroit, Kansas City and Milwaukee.)

Sinclair wanted to team up with MLB for league-wide streaming rights but baseball commissioner Rob Manfred spiked that plan. Speaking at a business conference in New York in October, Manfred basically said streaming rights were far too valuable to simply hand over to Sinclair, and it wasn’t MLB’s responsibility to bail out a broadcast company’s debt problem.

But MLB does have a stake in this venture.

Baseball is losing a share of its audience — particularly younger viewers — when streaming options are not available for local teams. The Rays already included streaming rights in their latest deal with Bally Sports and so their revenues are unchanged whether the games are available or not.

But, obviously, the team is eager to have games available to as much of the market as possible.

“We want our fans to be able to watch Rays games no matter how they consume media,” team president Matt Silverman said. “We are thankful that our games are available on Spectrum cable and streaming, and the Bally’s sports app will only improve access to our games once it goes live.”

The same is presumably true with the Lightning, and Bally’s is expected to fully launch its streaming app in time for the next NBA and NHL seasons. Lightning and Bally Sports Florida officials both declined to comment this week.

The success/failure of the streaming service should also be of interest to viewers who already have access to Bally Sports through Spectrum or DirecTV.

If a la carte programming is the direction of the future, and it seems to be, then it’s likely that cable companies like Spectrum will eventually offer Bally’s as a premium service with an added surcharge.

In other words, you will soon have more options when it comes to viewing the Lightning and Rays. It just depends on how much you’re willing to pay.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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