A standalone sports streaming service could be just the ticket for sports-loving cord-cutters

Sinclair's regional sports streaming plans would be a breath of fresh air for cord cutting, but will it ever get off the ground?

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For months now, the company behind regional Bally Sports networks has been talking about breaking free of the pay TV bundle.

Sinclair Broadcast Group has said that it wants to launch a standalone sports streaming service next year, consisting of live, local games and the ability to bet on them with real money. The company is reportedly targeting a price of $23 per month for the service, and hopes to launch it in time for the 2022 Major League Baseball season.

Whether it’ll actually happen is another matter. By unbundling regional sports, Sinclair could cannibalize its already lucrative business with cable and satellite TV providers, and it’s unclear if those providers are even on board with the plan.

But I’m hoping the company finds a way to make it work. Figuring out how to watch live sports without cable in the age of cord-cutting has become an expensive and confusing affair; having a single service that carries local sports would be a much-needed way to break through the clutter.

The messy state of sports streaming

For a certain kind of sports fan, there’s never been a more annoying time to watch TV.

Whereas a single pay TV subscription used to be all you needed to get complete coverage of professional football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, the rights for those leagues are now becoming carved up across cable companies and myriad streaming services.

Consider, for instance, the NHL’s recent deals with ESPN and Turner. ESPN says it will stream 75 games per year “exclusively” on ESPN+ and Hulu, while 25 games will be exclusive to ABC and the ESPN cable channel. For the playoffs, ESPN says it has “the ability” to simulcast games on ESPN+ in addition to ABC, but hasn’t said when it will exercise that ability. Meanwhile, Turner has indicated that its coverage will stick to cable on TNT and TBS, with games streaming on HBO Max at some unspecified date in the future.

The NFL’s deals with TV networks are similarly convoluted: Thursday Night Football will be a streaming-only affair on Amazon Prime, while Monday Night Football remains exclusive to cable on ESPN. ESPN+, however, will stream a late-season Saturday doubleheader and a Sunday morning game, while Peacock will be the exclusive home for one game per season.

I usually chafe at the idea that there are too many streaming services, because you can always just cycle through them one at a time to watch all the shows you care about. But that approach doesn’t hold up with sports, where watching live is the whole point. TV networks are now seizing on this reality to make sure you’ll pay for both an expensive channel bundle and their own individual streaming services.

A standalone service for local sports wouldn’t completely solve those problems, but it might help push expensive pay TV bundles out of the equation at a faster pace. TV bundles are already in steep decline—the biggest cable and satellite providers lost a combined 6 million subscribers last year—and the unbundling of local channels would likely hasten that collapse.

It would also illustrate how sports really ought to work in the streaming age: Instead of having to bounce between multiple services, you’d have one service that covers all the local games you really care about. You don’t have to switch between Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ to watch a single TV show, so why should sports be any different?

Will Sinclair sell a la carte sports?

Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that Sinclair’s plans are still up in the air. Last year, the company made $2.56 billion on its regional sports networks, nearly all of it ($2.47 billion) from the fees that it charges cable and satellite providers to carry its channels. (Those providers pass the costs into their customers, whether they want regional sports or not.)

By selling local sports on an a la carte streaming basis, Sinclair would be putting that easy money at risk. Even in a recent pitch to investors (via The Streamable), Sinclair has only projected annual revenues of $2 billion from its service, far less than what it already makes from cable and satellite TV.

While Sinclair would clearly like that business model to be additive, it would almost certainly threaten the company’s existing pay TV revenue stream. Earlier this week, Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported (via Awful Announcing) that at least two TV providers would consider dropping Sinclair’s regional sports networks from their lineups if it moved ahead with a standalone service.

Not that Sinclair can afford to sit still. Right now, the only way to stream the company’s Bally Sports channels is with AT&T TV, whose tier with regional sports costs $85 per month. There’s been no sign of those channels returning to other services such as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and Fubo TV, all of which refused to pay Sinclair’s high prices.

With no other ways to reverse a shrinking subscriber base, Sinclair may have no choice but to go a la carte whatever the risk. For all the talk of creating a service that appeals to gamblers, the biggest wager of all might come from Sinclair itself. Hopefully it’ll pay off for the rest of us.

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