Could MLB Follow MLS and Put Games Behind a Paywall?

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Several stories regarding Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) came out this week.  We have been watching the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Penguins on RSNs for years.  I'm sure we all have fond, nostalgic memories of FSN Pittsburgh and can still picture some of the promos they ran every commercial break.  We also had Root for a hot second before it was taken over by the current AT&T SportsNet.  

The first piece of news I saw was that AT&T SportsNet may not be able to make their payment on time to the Pirates.  As if the ownership wasn't already pinching pennies, right?  The second piece of news I saw is that Bally's, an owner of many RSNs telecasting several ballclubs in the league, may be going bankrupt.  This would make it difficult for over half of the league to meet their player payroll requirements.  

So could this be the end of RSNs?  Maybe.  And at first glance, this is a great thing for the Pirates and Pirate fans.  If RSNs go bankrupt, Major League Baseball would have to step in and nationalize the broadcasts.  You can't just have most of your teams not make payroll.  The league could find a suitor like ESPN or even new players to the broadcasting game like Apple or Amazon.  With a nationalized model, it could look more like football.  And the profit sharing would be extremely beneficial to teams like the Pirates.  Bob Nutting would have no excuse not to raise the payroll.  

Think about the NFL.  Do you ever hear about the Steelers not going for a big-time free agent because they are in a small market?  Will the Green Bay Packers lose Aaron Rodgers because they are a small market?  The New York Giants could potentially lose Daniel Jones because of the salary cap, but if not for that, their market size would not help them keep him.  The Indianapolis Colts have just as much of a chance at Jones and their market size has no effect.  A lot of that has to do with the NFL's profit sharing model. MLB could get closer to that.  It of course helps that there is a salary cap in the NFL, but the reason the Steelers can afford to spend up to that cap is because of the shared television revenue.

MLB also has a model now for selling to streaming services.  Major League Soccer sold their exclusive broadcasting rights to Apple TV.  Under this agreement, according to, Apple will begin streaming matches in 2023 through 2032.  A limited number of games will be free to all users and a select number of games will be free to Apple TV Plus Subscribers.  There also aren't any local blackouts for subscribers.  Also, all MLS season ticket holders received a free subscription with access to all of the matches.  Potentially, I've been told MLS teams had to buy these subscriptions from Apple for their fans, but regardless the cost was not on the fan.

The deal though does have a few drawbacks.  If you're a die-hard MLS fan it's a great thing.  You can watch every game with a subscription.  If you're a casual fan, not so great.  Catching the occasional game on cable while flipping the channels is impossible.  You need an Apple TV subscription, no matter what game you want to watch.  

So there's the trade-off.  If MLB were to sell to ESPN, they could put all games behind the paywall that is their ESPN+ subscription.  They could keep their Sunday Night Games on regular cable and offer it to those who have cable or streaming packages that include ESPN, but they also might not.  Every game could be behind a paywall. 

Or if someone like an Amazon comes in, there are no free cable games because they don't have a cable network.  If you consider the NFL again, all Thursday Night Football games are now on Amazon Prime.  Now, if you have an Amazon account, you don't have to pay for Prime to watch the games, but you do have to have a smart TV or a smart device, an Amazon account, and the knowhow on how to use it for streaming.  And it's not the last we'll see of streaming services buying up pro sports broadcasting rights.

The larger teams will fight against it.  The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't bringing in the amount of viewers that the Yankees' YES Network does.  So is it really fair for the Pirates to share the same profits as the Yankees or the Red Sox?  No.  But have the Steelers' ratings been carrying teams like Jacksonville Jaguars?  Yes.  And the NFL is doing just fine.  

So we'll see.  We're not there yet, but the only reason to have cable anymore is for live sports.  The reason I have Fubo is because it is the only streaming service I could find that had AT&T SportsNet, Food Network, and HGTV.  If AT&T SportsNet goes away, I'm not sure where I'll turn to.  Until I need to make that decision, I don't know if I'm more excited about the idea of more profit sharing in baseball or dreading having to buy another streaming service just to watch it.