The RSN boon that fueled MLBs rapid influx of cash was starting to peter out over this past winter. This wasn’t the result of anything nefarious. Rather, technology changed. Something called “Streaming” had grown past its awkward infancy.
The usual progression for a technology-based change is fairly standard: Initial resistance and ridicule is followed by growing acceptance until it is the norm. Then only the strongest performers of the old technology hold on until a bitter and forlorn end. Robert Fulton’s 1807 debut of the steamboat would take hold firmly within a few decades. Yet, over 100 years later World War 1 German U-Boat Captains would still see the occasional tall-masted sailing ship in their periscopes. Often they’d let the ships go. Sinking a rusty cargo ship was one thing. Killing an aging beauty of the sea was another. But, their leniency wouldn’t spare what little was left of the sailing fleet from the Knacker’s Yard. The economics simply were no longer there. Whether it is vacuum tubes, photographic film, commercial sailing ships, or cable television the outlook for the old ways when a new technology emerges to replace it is uniformly bleak.
The warning signs have been everywhere. The National Football League (NFL) shifted their Thursday Night games to streaming on Amazon Prime last year. Then, in the clearest signal yet that streaming was taking hold, they shifted their out-of-town package from the venerable “Sunday Ticket” on Direct TV to the streaming YouTube platform. Within months, RSNs began failing — but not as a direct result of the NFL’s actions — rather, it was more the continued decline of cable subscribers. This will only escalate from here.
So, this brings a series of opportunities cleverly disguised as problems. Part of MLB’s long-standing issues is that the industry is the inverse of the rival NFL. In MLB Land the franchises take in the money while the corporation herds the cats. In NFL space the corporation has iron-grip control. NFL franchises make money on attendance, concessions, parking, local radio rights, stadium naming rights, and seat licenses. It isn’t chump change. But, it pales in comparison to TV money. All the real money coming from television goes directly to corporate from which it is doled out to the franchises on an even basis. It explains why franchises in Buffalo and Green Bay can thrive despite being in the 53rd and 69th ranked media markets. MLB revenues are at an all-time high of $11 Billion. But, only $1.76 Billion of that comes directly to the corporation from rights fees paid by ESPN for 30 games per year, Fox Sports for the World Series, and a relatively small stipend of $85 Million from Apple TV for Friday games. The rest is coming in through the franchises. MLB’s smallest market is Milwaukee at #37. Given this arrangement it is hardly surprising that the largest markets make the most money. Over half of MLBs total worth is confined to the top six teams.
According to a number of reports, MLB corporate is welcoming the demise of the RSNs. It provides the opportunity to wrest control of the television income away from franchises affected by the RSN failures like Diamond Sports Group which is just the start. Even if the revenue dips in the early days the control is the important element. If events follow precedent the revenues should increase as streaming begins to predominate. Of course, the strongest RSNs will hold on the longest. The New York, Los Angeles Dodgers RSN, and New England markets will probably be the last ones standing. Born into a system where the largest markets flourish while the rest scramble for scraps, the “Baseball Royalty” will only accept equal footing with the peons after the bitterest ingestion of bile. And, this will only happen when the smoldering platform beneath their feet accelerates to being sufficiently hot enough to induce blisters on their soles. Viewership is down. Attendance is down. Revenues are up. This gravity-defying arrangement is not a sustainable formula. The Owners’ Meetings should be on Pay-per-View in a few years as there probably will be plenty of fur flying. But, MLB has seen an opening here and is sprinting towards it.
An inherent aspect of this whole conversion to streaming has not been lost on the suits in New York: The demographic most amenable to the new technology is the very demographic least interested in baseball. Speeding up the game and inducing more action is all an effort to generate more interest among that demographic. As stupefying as it is to say, it appears MLB is executing a strategic plan. Who would have ever thunk it? The “Tell” was when they actually engaged in Change Management over the course of the winter. This was totally contrary to their usual “Decide and Announce with Little Warning” procedure. The changes have reduced Spring Training game times by somewhere around 25 minutes (13%). The ban on Shifts will generate more hits. But, it won’t produce more balls-in-play. MLB can do that unilaterally and with stealth by simply deadening the ball. The list of benefits is long. “Pitch to Contact” has been rendered as obsolete a strategy as the Macedonian Phalanx. If the little guys in the lineup can’t pop the ball out of the park routinely the contact pitcher would return quickly with subsequently more balls in play. Keep an eye on Home Run totals this season. And expect more changes next year. Baseball will never completely look like an action video game. But, it will more resemble it in the future than it has in the past.
Not lost in all this locally is that the demise of RSNs will eventually include the ghastly Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN.) It might be the brightest piece of news to come to the Nats this winter. The court battles with the Angelos clan in Baltimore over owed moneys may soldier on for years. One of their attorneys stated as much in an oral argument recently, “We will continue to go through this process, seemingly in perpetuity.” This should not come as any surprise. The Angelos family has turned litigation into a lifestyle. They all basically sued each other this past year before later settling. That’s family fun at its finest right there. However, the war is going to be lost as the Bud Selig assembled Frankenstein-like MASN will be, “Overtaken by Events.” The MASN albatross has affected the Nats in numerous ways, not the least of which is that it has seemingly rendered the franchise unsalable by motivated sellers. Patience, however thin is always a virtue. It will be needed. But, the writing is on the wall.
As for the Nats, Oy! This will be a tough season. It should not be as dreadful as last year. There is that, and little else. Ever since the team won the World Series in 2019 the fates have unleashed a most vicious assemblage of pernicious maladies upon them. The highest paid player and World Series hero has likely thrown his last meaningful pitch despite being under contract four more years. The second highest paid player and World Series hero was apparently the victim of Pod People in a C-level remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Seldom has a pitcher simply “Lost it” so dramatically. For a little added salt in the wounds the premiere pitching prospect blew out his arm in a Spring Training game. He’ll be lost for the season as he goes through the modern rite-of-passage for hurlers; Tommy John surgery. There are some positives. But, the scales tilt heavily towards the negatives. Some of MLB’s issues revolve around the inability of smaller-income teams to improve without going through the dreaded, “Tank-then-Soar” protocols. The Nationals are not only there, they are deep into the pit dug by the process. The thought is that they have bottomed out and are beginning the climb upwards. Baseball is not without its intrinsic joy no matter the record. Whether it’s an evening in the park with family and friends or simply watching on TV in your most comfortable chair the game gives more than it takes. There are glimmers of promise as prospects evolve into players. We need to gather and cherish those glimmers. It will help get through a quite bumpy ride.
Louis Burton Lindley Jr. was a rodeo cowboy who rode bucking horses. At one event as he went to draw his ride for the day he approached the old codger running the draw. He asked, “You got any good ones in there today?” The old guy looked up and said with a hard western drawl, “Son, ain’t nothing in here but Slim Pickin’s.” Lindley took the phrase, changed some spelling, and applied it as his screen name when he took up acting. Slim Pickens was a treasure as a movie cowboy. But, his most noted scene came in Stanley Kubrik’s 1964 opus of twisted genius, the dark comedy, “Dr. Strangelove.” Pickens memorably leaves the cockpit of a B-52, enters the Bomb Bay and mounts a thermonuclear device as if it were a rodeo bronco. Released into the frigid and still air Slim rides the bomb with his cowboy hat waving in his right hand yelling “YeeHaw” at the top of his lungs into an earless sky all the way down. If at some point after a yet another particularly disturbing Nats loss you may think that you’ve metaphorically hitched a ride with Slim for the season. There won’t be a nuclear detonation at the end. It will just be a wimpy thud. A throaty “Yee Haw” several times along the way will surely lighten the journey. The cowboy hat is optional.