February 22, 2024

MLB commissioner pegs 2025 target for a half-league streaming package

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Commissioner Rob Manfred is targeting 2025 for the introduction of a direct-to-consumer streaming package that would include, at a minimum, roughly half of the teams in Major League Baseball.

Whether that can be accomplished, however, is still to be seen, and might largely depend on how the Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy case shakes out.

“Realistically, my target to having a digital package I can take to market would be for the ’25 season,” Manfred said at the conclusion of an owners meeting outside Orlando.

Manfred was referring to a package that would give fans a way to watch games in-market. Through MLB.tv, fans can already watch a given team if they live outside a team’s territory — say you live in Cleveland, but want to watch the Marlins, you can do that right now.

The problem has long been some fans inability to watch games inside a team’s territory, or in market.

A bundle of half the league would be a major step toward making games more accessible, to reducing some of what fans commonly refer to as “blackouts.” It’s something Manfred has wanted for years, but had never before publicly put a target date to before.

How exactly such a package would be available — through the likes of an Apple or Peacock or Amazon — or through the league itself, like MLB.tv is today, isn’t known. But for such a package to be viable in any form, Manfred believes he needs to have access to close to half the league’s digital rights.

“Never mind want or could — I think you need to be in the 14 and growing mode,” he said.

MLB this year is to broadcast three teams’ games: the Diamondbacks, Padres and Rockies. Those three teams digital rights, therefore, should be available for 2025. The Guardians, Rangers and Twins are not under contract for 2025, so that makes six potential teams right away.
Then it gets tricky.

Four teams that are under contract with Diamond for 2025 did not grant Diamond their digital rights: the Angels, Braves, Cardinals and Reds. Those teams therefore might be able to join a package as well. Whether there’s anything in those teams’ contracts that would limit how those rights are used isn’t known, but that could make for as many as 10 teams available right now.

MLB still might be short the necessary rights in that scenario, though — and five other teams’ rights hinge on the Diamond bankruptcy proceedings. Diamond has streaming rights for the Tigers, Royals, Marlins, Brewers and Rays.

How could MLB get those rights back? If Diamond was liquidated this year as part of bankruptcy proceedings; or, if Diamond continues on, the parties could negotiate an arrangement to give the rights back to MLB and the teams.

It appears likely Diamond will restructure, rather than liquidate. Amazon has come in as an investor and Diamond has the support of some major creditors for a restructuring that would keep the company going beyond 2024, at least in theory.

And if Diamond does keep going, a negotiation to get the rights back might be tough, because the relationship between MLB and Diamond has been largely contentious.

“Hats off to Amazon,” Manfred said Thursday. “I think they, for them, made a really interesting deal. They essentially have — from now, until the time that there is a plan that is approved (in court) that allows Diamond to exit bankruptcy — an option to try to figure out if they can acquire digital rights that would be enough to make a viable product. If they do that, I suspect they put the $100 million in. If they don’t, I suspect they don’t.

“A free option is a great thing if you can get it.”

It’s unknown whether MLB could convince any large-market teams such as the Red Sox or Yankees to participate immediately. Those teams’ TV rights are highly valuable, and it would set up a tricky negotiation between the league office and those teams, if the teams were even interested. But the success of an MLB national package could ultimately hinge on having the best and most famous franchises as part of the offering.

Three other teams might be candidates for inclusion in an MLB package as well. The Astros, Mariners and Pirates were all with Warner Bros.-Discovery, which got out of the RSN business, and those teams subsequently took increased ownership in their respective RSNs.

Warner Bros.-Discovery is still a player in the sports landscape, though. This week, they, ESPN and FOX announced they were creating their own sports bundle. MLB and the teams were not given advance notice the deal was coming, people close to the matter said, but Manfred seemed optimistic about the new package’s arrival.

“I see that development as positive,” he said. “I think it is another place that’s going to need to buy rights in order to make the platform go, and compelling, and I think it’s good to have another buyer. I think it’s particularly good for us — you think about it, it’s our three biggest partners, right? All positive.”

(Top photo: AP Photo / John Minchillo)