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The latest on changes in MLB’s RSN ecosystem

The Pirates have taken part-ownership of a new Pittsburgh channel.

Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

As you know from previous articles on this topic, the landscape of baseball broadcasting is changing. Diamond Sports, which operates the Bally Sports Networks that carry a dozen or so MLB teams, has filed for bankruptcy and it appears likely that the Bally networks will be gone no later than the end of the 2024 season, and perhaps earlier. Some teams (Twins, in particular) have even noted they are going to be reducing payroll because of the lower revenue expected from local TV (covered in the second link above), and the Padres took out a $50 million loan earlier this year to help meet payroll expenses.

Now, we have a report that does not involve the Bally Sports networks. Instead, it’s one of the AT&T Sports Networks, run by Warner/Discovery, which announced it was getting out of the RSN business at the end of the 2023 MLB season.

One of those networks was in Pittsburgh and covered Pirates and Penguins games.

The Pirates have announced they are taking part ownership in a new channel that will carry Pirates and Penguins games:

Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday announced that they will become joint owners, along with the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins, of RSN SportsNet Pittsburgh, starting Jan. 1.

New England Sports Network (NESN), which like the Penguins is owned by Fenway Sports Group, will oversee day-to-day management of the channel.

This is good, right? So says Pirates president Travis Williams:

“Above all else, this was the right thing to do for our fans,” Pirates president Travis Williams said in a statement. “From the outset of this process, the most important thing to us was to ensure that our fans have the same level of access to Pirates game telecasts and the same high-quality production that they enjoy today. This agreement accomplishes that and more as we enable Pittsburgh sports fans to continue to enjoy a two-team, 24/7 sports channel.”

And sure, that’s great. Pirates fans won’t miss any games, the article says the broadcast team (Greg Brown and Joe Block, with several former Pirates players as analysts) will remain the same. So what’s not to like?

The Pirates generated a reported $50 million - $60 million from their legacy relationship with AT&T SportsNet — a local TV rights revenue figure that was considered high, given the team’s market profile.

It’s considered unlikely they’ll match that with the new configuration.

Oh.

This is the issue with the change in the broadcast and RSN landscape for local teams. The bubble that had provided teams with huge rights fees over the last two decades has burst. These sorts of fees going forward aren’t going to be as large, and this channel is a cable/satellite channel that should get good coverage in the Pirates’ market territory. The teams that are going to go to a streaming or hybrid cable/streaming model — as the Diamondbacks and Padres did last year and the Twins and others will do this year — are likely to see revenue drops.

In baseball, the rich (the Dodgers, to cite one key example) get richer and the poor get poorer, and I know you’re likely tired of me saying this, but I suspect this is going to get us another lockout after the 2026 season.

As always, we await developments.