With new hires, Major League Baseball is preparing to launch its own local baseball broadcasts for multiple teams in the face of financial issues experienced by Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Group and Warner Brothers Discovery’s AT&T SportsNet.
This is the worst time for MLB to be forced to launch its own team broadcasts, what with the beginning of the season at the end of the month. But it’s not as though this wasn’t predicted: way back in October 2021 we predicted MLB streaming was on course for a massive reset, and with two regional sports network groups facing huge financial issues, that reset is now happening, and MLB is only now responding.
The canary in the coal mine: Diamond Sports Group, the Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary, has the rights to 14 major league teams and skipped $140 million cash in interest payments due Feb. 15. Using a 30-day grace period, it’s said the firm is looking at a Chapter 11 filing, allowing it to restructure some $8.6 billion in debt and sell off what remains. Besides missing this debt payment, the next likely step is to renegotiate broadcast deals with teams partnering with Bally Sports. The Diamond issues affect the Angels, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Guardians, Marlins, Padres, Rangers, Rays, Reds, Royals, Tigers and Twins.
Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. Discovery announced on Friday it would be offer sporting rights on its three AT&T SportsNet RSNs back to teams, with a Chapter 7 liquidation filing possible after a March 31 deadline for the team and RSNs to settle their accounts. The reason: the RSNs just don’t have the money to make rights payments due at the beginning of the year. The MLB teams affected by this decision: the Astros, Pirates, and Rockies, while Warner Bros. Discovery has a minority stake in Root Sports Northwest, broadcasting Mariners games. (The Mariners own 60 percent of Root Sports Northwest, with Warner Bros. Discovery controlling the remaining 40 percent.)
To address the issue, Major League Baseball hired three new staff members to its newly created Local Media department led by media industry executive Billy Chambers. The new hired: Doug Johnson, Greg Pennell and Kendall Burgess.
Doug Johnson joins MLB as Senior Vice President and Executive Producer, Local Media, where he will be responsible for overseeing all games produced locally by MLB. Johnson has 16. A 27-time Emmy Award winner with 16 years of experience in managing remote and studio productions Johnson joins MLB from AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.
Greg Pennell begins at MLB as Senior Vice President, Local Media where he will be responsible for the production operations of all local MLB telecasts. Pennell has spent 15 years working in sports broadcasting in operational & finance roles for the Fox Sports Networks and Bally Sports Regional Networks. Most recently, Pennell oversaw the Bally Sports Regional Networks day-to-day financial operations.
Kendall Burgess starts at the league office as Vice President of Local Media Technical Operations where she will oversee the Technical Operations of the local MLB telecasts. Burgess has over two decades of experience in the sports broadcasting industry, serving as Vice President of Technical Operations for Bally Sports working with Production and Engineering to provide direction for the 19 Bally Sports regional networks across the country.
“These new hires are an important step in our preparation to address the changing landscape of MLB game distribution in light of the increasing challenges and pressure facing regional sports networks,” said Noah Garden, MLB Chief Revenue Officer, via press release. “The decades of experience and expertise in game production and operations that Doug, Greg, and Kendall bring to Major League Baseball reinforces our commitment to deliver the highest quality game telecasts to our fans.”
All of this is well and good, but these are merely band-aid approaches to a very existential threat to the financial health of the sport. If all MLB wants to do is replicate the cable experience that saw two sets of RSNs fail, it has all the tools in the place: MLB can just launch team-specific networks with live broadcasts, reruns of games and potentially broadcasts from MiLB teams–made available after MLB took streaming and cable rights previously controlled by MiLB teams.
But at a time when we’re seeing huge changes on the streaming front, largely breaking along generational lines, the status quo will not hold. We’re already seeing other sports teams launch their own streaming services–today MSG Networks announced MSG+, featuring game broadcasts for the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. MLS has scrapped local game broadcasts and will instead broadcast every match on Apple TV via a subscription service. For this year MLB’s mission to thread the needle by keeping existing cable customers (a shrinking, older demo) and create new streaming services from scratch. A complicated and challenging task, to be sure.
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