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Volume 23 No. 9
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MLB clubs get streaming rights in their markets, but there’s an important catch

Yankees fans who can’t make it to the Bronx might soon be able to watch the team on a major tech company’s platform.
Photo: getty images
Yankees fans who can’t make it to the Bronx might soon be able to watch the team on a major tech company’s platform.
Photo: getty images
Yankees fans who can’t make it to the Bronx might soon be able to watch the team on a major tech company’s platform.
Photo: getty images

While cord-cutting baseball fans may soon be able to stream some games of MLB teams in their local market, the deal may not be quite as good as it sounds, at least initially.

MLB’s owners voted unanimously last month at the owners meetings in Arlington, Texas, to give unauthenticated digital rights back to the 30 clubs in an expected move that may allow baseball fans, especially cord-cutters, the opportunity to stream games in their local markets beginning as soon as the start of the 2020 season.

But there is an important caveat: Clubs are expected to need to work through contractual issues with their respective regional sports networks in order to be able to stream games already slated to be broadcast on those RSNs. That will likely take time. 

Last year, 89% of all MLB games aired on a regional sports network, but the number for each club varies by market. Depending upon the contractual terms with their RSNs, clubs may now be able to sell the digital rights to the remaining games to big tech companies such as Amazon, Hulu, YouTube or other interested providers 

The opportunity to sell the digital rights for games could offer another revenue stream for clubs, but it depends largely on how each individual franchise chooses to utilize that opportunity. 

The reversion of rights to the clubs is just the first step. In order for these changes to be fully implemented for the benefit of fans, contractual issues between clubs and their rights holders — and between the RSNs and their affiliates — still need to be worked through. A source with knowledge of the discussions said there may be a delay in full implementation, but in each coming year there is expected to be an incremental evolution in more parties figuring out how to exploit these digital rights.

For example, if a club has a deal with its RSN that extends beyond 2030, they will have the chance to amend their deal as they see other clubs and RSNs taking advantage of these digital rights opportunities. Instead of waiting for the expiration of the deal, they can work out the terms ahead of time.

MLB has been a pioneer in the area of streaming video and games. In 2002, MLB Advanced Media first live-streamed a baseball game, and the following year MLB.tv began offering season-long packages for fans to watch out-of-market games. 

Asked in September about the inevitability of clubs being able to sell their own digital rights to local broadcasts, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Sports Business Journal that it was “a sooner rather than later issue.”