YouTube TV's regional sports situation is a total mess for cord-cutters now

While YouTube TV still carries 19 of 21 Fox regional sports networks, lots of cities and towns are being excluded.

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Last week, YouTube TV backtracked on plans to drop regional Fox Sports networks from its channel lineup. In a new deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group, YouTube TV agreed to carry 19 of those 21 networks, excluding only Fox Sports West and Fox Sports Prime Ticket in Los Angeles (along with the YES Network, which Sinclair partly owns, in New York). In a press release, Sinclair trumpeted the deal as “ensuring continued access for millions of fans.”

Sadly, that’s not the whole story. Around the country, YouTube TV subscribers are finding that they can no longer watch the regional Fox Sports networks they were getting before. In some cases, subscribers have lost all regional sports coverage, yet they’re paying the same $50 per month as subscribers in other parts of the state or region, where the same team coverage remains available.

As a result, YouTube TV is either the best live TV streaming service for sports or one that sports fans should avoid. It all depends on where you live.

Where YouTube TV dropped regional sports

YouTube would not comment for this story, so the only way to figure out where YouTube TV still carries regional sports is by plugging your zip code into its website.

But after looking at complaints on Reddit and Twitter, a pattern emerged: The farther you are from where a local team plays, the more likely it is that YouTube TV has dropped that team’s coverage in your area.

Sinclair seemed to confirm this, saying in a statement that YouTube is deciding not to carry regional sports in “outer zones” of certain markets.

“[T]hey alone determine whether or not to carry an RSN in an outer zone, where providing access to the channel is allowed but not required,” Sinclair said. “It was YouTube’s decision to drop certain outer zones, without dropping the price charged to subscribers who are losing this content.”

Below are some cities where YouTube TV has dropped regional Fox Sports networks. Keep in mind that in all cases, Hulu + Live TV continues to carry these channels for $55 per month.

  • Charleston, SC: Fox Sports Carolinas, South, and Southeast dropped
  • Asheville/Greenville, NC: Fox Sports Carolinas and South dropped
  • Des Moines and Dubuque, Iowa: Fox Sports Midwest and North dropped
  • Houston and Midland, Texas: Fox Sports Southwest dropped
  • Jacksonville, Pensacola, and Tallahassee, Fla.: Fox Sports Florida and Sun dropped
  • Tampa, Fla.: Fox Sports Florida dropped
  • Indianapolis, Ind.: Fox Sports Ohio dropped
  • Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.: Fox Sports Kansas City dropped
  • Wichita, Kan: Fox Sports Kansas City dropped
  • Jackson and Tupelo, Miss: Fox Sports South and Southeast dropped
  • Louisville, Ky.: Fox Sports Ohio and South dropped
  • Columbus, Ohio: Fox Sportstime Ohio dropped
  • Toledo, Ohio: Fox Sports Ohio and Detroit dropped
  • Huntington, W.Va.: Fox Sports Ohio dropped

This is not a complete list, but a sampling that shows how YouTube TV now has major holes in its regional sports coverage throughout the United States. In addition to the examples above, YouTube TV is not carrying the YES Network in New York or Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in the Los Angeles area. Unlike Hulu, YouTube TV also doesn’t have a deal to carry Marquee Sports Network, which will show Chicago Cubs games this year.

An unusual deal

Let’s back up a little bit and make a distinction: YouTube TV has not dropped the national FS1 and FS2 sports channels, which are owned by Fox Corporation. Fox regional sports networks (or RSNs), despite their name, were acquired by Sinclair last year, when Disney divested the networks as part of its 21st Century Fox acquisition.

Anyway, since Sinclair took over those regional sports networks, it’s lost several distribution deals. Dish Network dropped Fox RSNs from both its satellite service and Sling TV streaming service over the summer and doesn’t seem eager to get them back. FuboTV, which once prided itself on its sports programming, quietly dropped Fox RSNs in early January, and PlayStation Vue shut down later that month.

While I’m not privy to what was happening behind the scenes with YouTube, I imagine Sinclair was under a lot of pressure to reach an agreement. The traditional TV business is now in steep decline, and while streaming services like YouTube TV aren’t growing quickly enough to compensate, they’re at least slowing the rate of decay. With more than two million subscribers, YouTube TV is one of the only pay TV bundles whose subscriber numbers are increasing every quarter.

YouTube was likely facing pressure as well, both from subscribers threatening to quit if it dropped regional sports and from a desire not to lose a pricing edge over Hulu + Live TV, which has 1.2 million more subscribers despite being $5-per-month more expensive. Thus, the companies have landed on a deal in which YouTube TV is excluding some regional Fox Sports networks and only allowing a subset of customers to access the others.

We can only guess at how this works out financially. It could allow YouTube to use its newfound cost savings in sports-free markets to absorb price hikes for sports in others. Or as one Redditor theorized last week, it could allow YouTube to avoid minimum subscriber requirements in areas where sports teams are less popular. In any case, carving up regional sports coverage this way is highly unusual.

“In my entire history of covering this space, I’ve never seen this happen,” Rich Greenfield, a media industry analyst at LightShed Partners, said in an interview this week.

That’s probably because it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially for a service that’s available nationwide. From a marketing perspective, any claims YouTube now makes about its local sports coverage should now come with a big asterisk, and anyone who wants to recommend YouTube TV to their friends (or, ahem, readers) will need to think twice about where those people live.

It’s a messy situation for YouTube TV, but an even messier one for Sinclair, which might now need to entertain even more patchwork deals as it negotiates future contracts with other TV providers. A big one, Greenfield points out, is Comcast, whose agreement with Sinclair comes up for renewal in September.

“If I was looking at my contract, I’d be saying, ‘Why can’t I do this, too?’” Greenfield said.

As with so much else in cord-cutting, I’d like to think this breakdown is the start of a bigger disruption, in which fans can access live sports without being tied to a big bundle of TV channels at all. But the path from here to there is going to be fraught with more customers getting a raw deal.

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