Minnesota Twins Fans Might Have To Find A New Way To Watch Games This Season
Aside from the occasional national game and the playoffs, Minnesota Twins fans have been watching their favorite baseball team on Regional Sports Network (RSN) Bally Sports North - formerly FOX Sports North. That long-running home for the Twins, along with the Wild, Timberwolves, Lynx, and United could be changing. Only this time, not just in name.
Fans will remember FOX Sports North rebranded to Bally Sports North ahead of the 2021 MLB season. This happened as part of a sale of the FOX Sports RSNs to Sinclair Broadcasting under the subsidiary Diamond Sports Group. The sale happened in 2019, but Sinclair worked a naming rights deal with gambling brand Bally's to develop some synergy in the world of sports betting and game coverage.
The sale to Sinclair's Diamond Sports Group from the Walt Disney Corporation, who previously owned the FOX Sports RSNs, closed for $9.6 billion in August of 2019. In the purchase, Sinclair gained broadcast rights for a number of professional sports teams through their network of 13 RSNs which also includes Bally Sports Wisconsin and others.
What's going on with Bally Sports?
Rumblings of financial challenges for Bally Sports owner Diamond have persisted in recent months, with The Athletic reporting (paywall) that the company had lost $1.2 billion in the most recent fiscal quarter.
RSNs as a whole, even beyond Bally Sports, are facing challenges as people move more toward streaming and away from traditional cable and satellite packages. Ballys Sports did introduce a streaming option called Bally Sports+ for $19.99/month, though Twins games were not part of the streaming offering. Only Wild, Wolves, and Lynx games for Minnesota fans.
Additional news on the company's financial woes came in mid-February, when the company failed to make a $140 million debt payment, opting instead to utilize a 30-day grace period to "continue progressing its ongoing discussions with creditors and other key stakeholders regarding potential strategic alternatives and deleveraging transactions to best position Diamond Sports Group for the future". Basically speaking, they're looking for ways to reorganize the company to move forward.
With the Bally Sports network holding broadcast rights for almost 50 professional and other teams, this leaves fans wondering what will happen and how or where they will be able to watch their team in the future.
What happens next?
The short answer? That remains unclear. If the organization is unable to make its $140 million payment by the end of the grace period on March 15, the next steps appear to be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. If that happens, it still remains unclear what would happen with the network and its deals with the teams and leagues they broadcast games for.
It is being reported that the MLB, NHL, and NBA are all working on plans of what to do in the event of a worst-case scenario. The "good news" for fans is that the NHL and NBA seasons are getting into the final stages as bankruptcy would occur. Both regular seasons for the NHL and NBA end just a couple of weeks after that March 15 deadline. The playoffs for both leagues then migrate to other cable and broadcast networks, which will not be impacted.
The MLB season, on the other hand, could be impacted in a far larger way.
How are the leagues reacting?
Commissioner Adam Silver commented on the subject during the league's All-Star Weekend, saying the following (via The Dallas Morning News):
“Short-term, I’m not all that concerned. It largely affects the regular season for the NBA in terms of distributing, [and] delivering those games directly to our consumers. And if they were to indeed, you know, file for bankruptcy, there won’t be that much of the regular season left.'
Silver went on to say:
“For that period of time, we will have in place arrangements, if necessary, to continue to distribute those games to fans. So I think that’s what’s most important.” Backup options, in the event the league can't work something out with Diamond, appear to include local over-the-air television and streaming services until the playoffs, where separate deals with other cable and broadcast networks are in place. The end of the regular season is April 9.
The NHL acknowledged the situation with Diamond/Bally Sports and another RSN operator, AT&T Sports, who also is dealing with some league payment challenges. with a statement shared on Twitter on February 16.
CordCuttersNews suggests that there are reports that the NHL could offer in-market streaming through the already-existing out-of-market streaming service the league operates.
Similar to the NBA, the NHL season will be near its end if bankruptcy for Diamond occurs. The season is set to end on April 14, when other cable and broadcast deals kick in for the playoffs.
This is the league most directly set to be impacted by this issue, at least in the short term. Both the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers would be directly impacted by this, with a season that starts for both teams on March 30. The Twins open against the Royals in Kansas City and the Brewers open in Chicago against the Cubs.
Forbes reports that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sees this situation to include a potential silver lining. He was quoted as saying "We've been really clear that if Diamond doesn't pay, under every single one of the broadcast agreements, that creates a termination right, and our clubs will proceed to terminate those contracts."
That sounds like a pretty clear line drawn in the sand.
The "silver lining" would be that the league has an opportunity to revisit how their games are distributed and take more control over their own content.
What would MLB do if the Bally Sports deal falls apart?
Major League Baseball is dealing with more than one RSN issue. The Diamond/Bally Sports one is glaring, but rights payment challenges from other RSNs are also leading the league to look to the future - maybe completely changing the RSN situation with the league.
Forbes suggests that the league is prepared already to utilize its streaming platform MLB.TV. This would be a change from the current operation of the service, which focuses on out-of-market games in favor of protecting existing RSN deals and the rights those broadcasters have.
As far as non-streaming coverage of the games, Forbes says the league could step in and take over production of the game broadcasts and lean on deals with providers like Spectrum and Comcast, who already provide MLB Network as an option, to also provide distribution of the games to paid linear TV service providers.
While there is a lot of uncertainty, the professional leagues most directly tied to Diamond/Bally Sports seem to have backup plans in place to continue offering fans access to video coverage of their games. The way you access it just might be changing. Unfortunately, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.