SBJ Media: Cincy — Ground Zero for MLB's RSN fight – Sports Business Journal

I am beaming with pride for two of my nieces, Juliana and Marissa Mount, who completed their first Boston Marathon today.
Diamond Sports Group told the Reds that it will not pay its rights fee on time, potentially setting up a showdown with MLB over the team’s rights. Diamond, which owns the majority of Bally Sports Ohio, was due to make the payment today. Diamond still has a 15-day cure period where it can make its rights payment without penalty.

If Diamond does not pay within that grace period, MLB believes that the team will get its rights back, expected to happen during its early May series with the White Sox. The May 5 White Sox-Reds game is scheduled for AppleTV+. The Saturday night May 6 one is where the Reds could see MLB take over production.

The Reds situation is different from those in Cleveland and Minnesota, two other markets where Diamond has not made rights fees payments on time. That’s because the Reds own part of Bally Sports Ohio, and the presence of that joint venture has kept that RSN separate from the bankruptcy proceeding.

The Angels, Cardinals, Marlins, Padres and Royals are in a similar situation as the Reds. Those teams also hold equity stakes in their RSNs, essentially keeping those networks out of the bankruptcy proceedings.

Diamond owns all of Bally Sports North, which carries Twins games, and Bally Sports Great Lakes, which carries Guardians games. Because those RSNs are fully owned by Diamond, the court gets to decide who controls those rights. A bankruptcy judge is expected to rule next month on what happens to those rights. Currently, Diamond is producing and distributing those games, even though they are not up-to-date on their rights payments.

If it gets back the Reds’ rights, MLB’s plan is to use many of the same behind-the-camera crew and trucks that currently work on the games for Bally Sports Ohio. That because most of those staffers are freelancers, and Mobile TV Group owns the trucks, sources said. The announcers work for the team, including John Sadak on play-by-play with analysts Chris Welsh and Barry Larkin.

A source said MLB has handshake agreements with distributors like DirecTV and Spectrum Cable, which is the dominant cable system in the Cincinnati market. The cable and satellite providers would carry the games on a different channel than Bally Sports Ohio.
The second season of the media rights deal the NHL has with TNT, ABC and ESPN saw a slight viewership drop, as the league had more tonnage of games across each of its partners, notes my ratings-focused colleague Austin Karp.

ABC/ESPN averaged 583,000 viewers for its games, down 2%. The Disney networks had 50 games this season vs. only 28 last season (no blackouts each season). The expansion of the ESPN slate of games this season included six cable TV windows up against the NFL early in the season, something that wasn’t an issue in Year 1. Excluding those NHL vs. NFL windows, ABC/ESPN averaged 629,000 viewers this season, up 6% from the full 2021-22 season.

ABC on its own averaged around 1 million viewers for games this season, up 19% season-over-season (15 games vs. 9). ABC’s Devils-Bruins on April 8 was the best non-Winter Classic NHL regular-season game under the current rights deal (even with direct competition on ESPN2 from the NCAA Men’s Hockey Championship and its best audience since 2011).

TNT averaged 364,000 viewers for its regular season games, up 1% from Season 1 of the new media rights pact in 2021-22. TNT had 61 games this season, which is 20% more than Season 1.

There were no blackouts on TNT airwaves last year, but with expanded schedule, there were multiple blackouts in key markets like Boston, N.Y. and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Blackouts also happened around games airing in markets like Tampa-St. Pete, Pittsburgh, L.A., St. Louis, Chicago and Denver. Excluding TNT games with blackouts, NHL game telecasts were up 9% from last year.

TNT saw 1.78 million viewers for Penguins-Bruins in the Discover NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 from Fenway Park (2:14pm ET start). That is up 31% from the network’s first time with the game last season — a record-low Winter Classic that featured Blues-Wild on New Year’s Day in prime time.
I know that it’s way too early to declare the MLB pitch clock a TV ratings success. We’re only two-and-a-half weeks into the MLB season, which is not nearly enough time to make any grand pronouncements. But … 

The early signs are looking good. I called Flora Kelly, VP/ESPN Research, to ask her what she has seen so far. She said it was too early to tell (of course!). But based on numbers from spring training combined with the first couple of ESPN games, she’s encouraged.

So far, ESPN’s games are nearly a half-hour shorter than last year. ESPN’s had its most-watched spring training since 2016, and its first three games “trended above what we thought they would do,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s team speculates that the new rules will keep fans watching longer (or “time spent viewing” in research exec parlance).

But it’s more than just the shorter games. Kelly believes scoring will increase due to MLB’s banning of the shift and using larger bases. “More scoring equals people watching longer,” Kelly said. “You combine that with a shorter game, and, from a ratings perspective, we might have something here.”

One data point that Kelly will be monitoring all season: what happens in the fourth and fifth innings. Historically, that’s where ESPN had started to see some ratings erosion during their regular season baseball games. “There’s an opportunity to shift that trend,” she said, regarding the shorter games.

A potential red flag: What happens with playoff baseball? Fox, ESPN and Turner bought the rights to the postseason on the theory that each game be around a four-hour window. Typically, networks want longer — not shorter — marquee games. Even though games have the same number of ad breaks, a network’s gross ratings points would drop. Ad buyers use the GRP stat, among others, to determine where to buy ad time.

Imagine if a World Series game ran two hours instead of four. Unless the networks have programming that carries a rating as high as those lost two hours, the shorter game could have a negative impact on GRPs.
It’s a situation that bears watching.
I am in L.A. for our CAA World Congress of Sports event that takes place Tuesday and Wednesday. Take a look at the whole agenda.

On Tuesday, I will conduct one-on-one interviews with Adam Silver and Nick Khan, and I will moderate a media-focused panel with ESPN’s Burke Magnus, Fox’s Mark Silverman, NBC’s Rick Cordella and WSC Sports’ Aviv Arnon.

Shoot me an email ( and let me know what topics you’d like to see me address. Lots to talk about.
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