Ninety years ago, a reporter asked Babe Ruth about the fact that his previous year’s pay had been higher than that of the president of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The Babe responded, in a probable dig at Hoover’s handling of the dawning Great Depression: “I had a better year than he did.”
Ruth, arguably the greatest player in the history of baseball, played in an era when only the very top professional athletes made more than just enough to live a decent life. And that didn’t change for a very long time — until the really large paychecks started becoming common in the latter half of the twentieth century.1
Fast-forward to today, when:
One doesn’t have to be even the best player on a team’s bench to make millions, perhaps tens of millions, a year.
The sports leagues (perhaps for that reason) live or die on massive outlays of money from the television networks that carry their games.
The vast majority of those games’ telecasts are controlled by dwindling numbers of providers which, exercising the muscle such a position gives them, are squeezing — or trying to squeeze — ever-greater fees from the services that bring those telecasts to viewers.
It’s been over 150 years since professional sports began to captivate the hearts of U. S. fans. Now, all of this may finally have become unsustainable, a possibility I’ve been pondering for a while. It may well be that the pyramid is, at long last, toppling.
I was further prompted toward this conclusion yesterday, when YouTube TV — our home’s streaming provider of choice — announced that it, like several other TV services before it, is dropping the Sinclair-owned RSNs on which many sports fans depend to watch their favorite teams. The two sides just couldn’t reach an agreement.2
Before I go on, the obvious question is: “What’s an RSN, and why should you care?”
Balls and (network) chains
I’ll address the second part of that question first: if you have little or no use for watching sports on TV, you probably don’t care about RSNs. Still, please keep reading because there are some points ahead which may very well merit your attention and consideration, even if only on an academic basis.
An RSN is a regional sports network. Probably the most prominent example is the New York area’s YES Network. Where I live, there’s Fox Sports Southwest, which carries almost all the regular-season games for the Texas Rangers baseball team, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, and the Dallas Stars hockey team. It also airs a variety of college- and high-school-level sporting events.
Wait a minute: it’s Fox Sports Southwest? But didn’t I say these were owned by Sinclair?
Yes. Last year, Disney bought many Fox properties, including its array of RSNs across the country. The U. S. Department of Justice required Disney to divest itself of the RSNs, and Sinclair eventually was the purchaser.
Sinclair then struck — or tried to strike — new arrangements with the various cable companies, satellite carriers, and streaming services that carried the RSNs. Unfortunately for fans who were cord-cutters, Sinclair chose to ask more than most streaming services, as well as Dish Network, were willing to pay. One by one, those services removed the RSNs. Yesterday, YouTube TV became the latest to do so.
An end to some good times
I grew up a TV sports fan. My late father and I spent many a weekend afternoon watching ballgames together. Back then, Major League Baseball typically appeared only in a nationally televised game of the week; and, during football season, we’d hope to get a decent college game to see, since there’d usually be only one or two available from whichever network, singular, happened to be carrying NCAA football in any given year.
This was long before the existence of RSNs — indeed, before the cable TV explosion that made them possible — and the resulting glut of daily and nightly games (within multiple sports), college and pro, that have become common in recent years.
However, as one service after another drops RSNs because the rising cost doesn’t justify having them, I suspect I’ve reached the end of always being just one button-press away from seeing my local teams, a luxury (as it turns out) to which I’d become accustomed over the last decade and a half.
At this writing, there remain two streaming services that are still carrying the Sinclair-owned RSNs: AT&T Now and Hulu. Compared to YouTube TV, each costs more and doesn’t work as well, in my opinion as a long-time TV nerd.3 So, although the Twitterverse and various online comments sections would lead me to believe I’m in the minority on this, I’m sticking with YouTube TV. Sinclair is known for its stubbornness (and other things), so I doubt seriously there will be a resolution. The other providers who dropped the Sinclair RSNs haven’t come back, and I see no reason to believe YouTube TV will vary from that pattern.4
The shadow of the pyramid
All this leaves me as I was about twenty years ago where the local teams are concerned. I get to see their games if a national network is airing them, whether on local TV or a cable network. Since Dallas/Fort Worth teams don’t get the exposure that West Coast and East Coast teams generally enjoy (e.g., they’re not part of that Yankees/Red Sox rivalry on which ESPN obsesses year after year), that means it’ll be a pretty rare experience.
Combined with no longer having NFL Network and NFL RedZone after cutting the cord, my TV sports choices have diminished considerably and suddenly.
It was good while it lasted.
Beyond my own inconvenience, however, I wonder just how long the whole house of cards will survive.
Every month, tens of thousands more homes cut the cord — often in favor of services like the ultra-low-cost Philo that have no sports programming because that allows the services to charge less, freed of the growing fees demanded by the sports-specific networks like ESPN and the RSNs.5 And, almost as often, more non-cable TV services that were carrying the sports nets are dropping the increasingly expensive RSNs rather than passing along the costs to their subscribers.
As a result, the pool of TV money on which the pro sports organizations have depended will, inevitably, shrink.
When it does, what will those organizations do?
They can’t cut the massive salaries the athletes make. That would result in strikes which would cripple the leagues, perhaps irrevocably.
They can’t make it up by charging higher ticket prices. Actual attendance has very little to do with a team’s income, compared to the mountains of money from broadcasters and cable networks.
I don’t know where it all ends. But I don’t plan to be standing anywhere near the shadow of the pyramid if and when that once-solid edifice starts making cracking noises.
Update, 2020-02-29: This morning, I learned from a story on CordCutters News that YouTube TV and Sinclair are continuing to negotiate over the dispute described in this post and have agreed that, while they do so, YouTube TV will keep carrying the RSNs. I’ll still keep this post in place because (a.) that’s not exactly a final resolution, if indeed such a thing is ever possible in this case and (b.) there are a number of points herein which, in this here point-maker’s opinion, remain salient nonetheless.
Update, 2020-09-29: Tonight, YouTube TV emailed its subscribers to say that, once again, it was dropping the Sinclair-owned Fox Sports RSNs; the effective date for this version of the divorce would be 2020-10-01.
Still, it’s interesting to consider that Ruth’s 1929 pay of what then was eighty thousand dollars would be over $1.2 million in 2020 dollars. ↩︎
Today, things got still stranger when it was reported that even a conventional cable service, none other than the giant Comcast, was seriously considering telling Sinclair to shove its RSNs. ↩︎
Similarly, my wife likes certain YouTube TV features — notably the category-leading DVR functionality — much better than what we had with cable. She’s not easy to please when it’s necessary to make a change, especially if she deems it a “technical” subject, so I’m not about to upset the applecart on that score. ↩︎
And you may be absolutely sure I have no intention whatsoever of backtracking to cable, and the humongous bills that accompany it, just to get the “local” RSN back. No way. ↩︎
Philo is a no-go for our household primarily because it doesn’t have our local network affiliates, but also due to its much more spartan cloud DVR service as compared to YouTube TV. Still, for those who care about neither local TV nor extensive DVR functionality, it’s a good option and a great value. ↩︎