It Might Take Divine Intervention To Solve This One

Entering this morning’s series finale with the Miami Marlins, the San Diego Padres sit in fourth place in the National League West, 8 games behind the division-leading Dodgers and 7.5 games behind the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks.  Those two teams just happen to control larger media markets immediately to San Diego’s north and east, all the more significant because south is a different country and west is the Pacific Ocean.

Their closer, Josh Hader, just blew his third save opportunity of the season, a 2-1 loss where the Marlins needed little to defeat a team that got just two hits on the night, one a home run from theri latest reclamation project, Gary Sanchez, making his debut with his third major league team since spring training.   Their leading hitter, the $440 million phenom Juan Soto, is hitting .263.  Their two expensive shortstops, the recently relocated and allegedly rehabilitated Fernando Tatis, Jr. and $287 million free agent signing Xander Bogearts, are respectively hitting .240 and .257.  They have exactly as many World Series victories as they do no-hitters in the 54 1/3 seasons they have been in existence.

So this was naturally the optimal time for this news to be dropped by ESPN.com’s Alden Gonzalez:

It took a little longer than Major League Baseball might have anticipated, but the San Diego Padres, fielding one of the most expensive, star-laden rosters in the industry, have become the first team to fold into its long-term plan of fitting all broadcasting rights under a national umbrella.

Diamond Sports Group, the Sinclair subsidiary navigating through bankruptcy proceedings, let a grace period come and go on Tuesday without paying the Padres, allowing the team to break free from its contract.

Through a statement, a Diamond spokesperson said “the economics of the Padres’ contract were not aligned with market realities.” And so, beginning today and continuing on in perpetuity, MLB will take over the Padres’ local broadcasts. It’s a major transition, but fans are not expected to miss any games; they’ll be available through the league’s MLB.tv app, initially for free, and through various cable companies on a different channel. MLB had been anticipating something like this for months.

So as of yesterday, Bally Sports San Diego will no longer be where those that still root for the Padres to see games.  At least for the balance of this week, the cost will mirror the relative current performance of the team, as Gonzalez continued:

From Wednesday to Sunday, Padres games will be free for all fans on MLB.com and Padres.com — two road games against the Miami Marlins and three home games against the Chicago Cubs. All that will be required is an MLB.com login. Starting next Monday, a subscription cost will kick in for Padres streams in the local market.

In-market fans can pay $19.99 a month or $74.99 for the rest of the season to watch San Diego’s games on MLB.tv. But most local fans with cable subscriptions won’t have to.

MLB cut deals with several cable companies — DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, Cox and Spectrum — to air Padres games through their services. Those will be available on different channels (694-3 for DirecTV, 781 for AT&T U-verse, 4 for Cox, 305 for Spectrum). Fans’ guides will list the channel simply as “San Diego Padres.”

So, no big whoop, right?  As Lee Corso might say, “not so fast, my friend”.

Because the real MLB battle of yesterday was going on off the field, as Next TV’s Daniel Frankel recounted:

A day after Sinclair Broadcast Group’s regional sports network subsidiary, Diamond Sports Group, made the bombshell decision to simply walk away from a billion-dollar contract with a Major League Baseball franchise, top executives and lawyers for the company appeared in a Texas bankruptcy court Wednesday, where they engaged in what was described by one reporter as a “vitriolic” standoff with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. 

Amid the acrimony, Diamond made a bombshell disclosure: The direct-to-consumer streaming service that’s at the heart of the conflict, Bally Sports Plus, only has around 203,000 paying customers attached to it, nine months after its national rollout. In testimony Wednesday, Diamond CEO David Preschlack confessed that the figure was only 55% of his subsidiary’s goal.

And in an even more telling narrative, Frankel described how MLB commissioner Rob Manfred feels about all of this:

Described as “bobbing back and forth” on the witness stand, meanwhile, Manfred seemed to make no effort to hide his disdain for Sinclair executive chairman David Smith, who he said tried to blackmail MLB into forcing its teams into playing ball with Bally Sports Plus.  Wednesday’s “marathon” hearing was well covered by The Athletic’s David Kaplan, among few other sports media writers. And as Kaplan describes it, Manfred’s testimony revealed two entities who don’t like each other very much. 

Manfred recalled — not so fondly! — a visit from Sinclair’s Smith in New York during an undisclosed time period. 

Quoted by The Athletic, Manfred testified, “And Mr. Smith, you know, said, ‘You know, we want these rights.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, unfortunately, sometimes people want things they’re not going to get and you’re not getting these rights.’ And he said to me, ‘So let me tell you what’s going to happen.’ He says, ‘I put $2 billion into the purchase of these RSNs … so what I’m going to do is I’m going to keep this going long enough until I get my $2 billion out, OK? And then I’m going to start squeezing your clubs to take their rights fees down, OK, in order to make sure that I stay profitable in the RSN business. And if they don’t agree to that, I’m going to put the entity into bankruptcy, and then I’m going to selectively reject contracts.’”

This would be the same David Smith whose company now controls more than 200 broadcast TV stations and over four decades of ownership has routinely used techniques like shell duopolies, bankruptcy declarations and leverage to walk away from paying studios and distributors 100 cents on the dollar when they would overpay for what turned out to be an underperformer.  The deal they made with the devil known as Bally’s, a tainted brand associated with gambling and gaming, has not served either the business model or the sport well.  Prominent in the presentations Smith and his chief henchman Chris Ripley would make to the investment community included assumptions of revenue tied to addictive behavior.  They asserted people NEED to see baseball and people NEED to wager on what they see,  The fact they had not fully acquired the rights to these revenue streams was apparently incidental.

Not to Manfred.  In fact, as Frankel concluded, his summative testimony was all but taken from a good LAW AND ORDER script:

There’s a part in here where, under cross-examination, Diamond’s attorney tries to hammer home the Sinclair talking point that Diamond now functions almost an entirely separate entity from its station group parent, Sinclair. 

Manfred smacked that one away like an 83 MPH hanging curveball. 

And he had some stern John Dutton-esque closing remarks for Diamond, Sinclair … and Smith.

“But let me tell you, every time you threaten to reject the contract … we’re going to be there to stand up those broadcasts for clubs so that our fans are not deprived of their games. OK, so if you think the leverage is fans are going to be screaming, you’re wrong, because we’re going to be there to stay in those games,” Manfred added. 

But before you send laurel wreaths to Manfred’s Park Avenue offices, consider that his expectations are based upon preying upon the same addictions that Smith believes all fans are guilty of having.

A 25-30 team with three-quarters of a billion dollars tied up in a handful of players not capable of even batting .270 is not worthy of an afterthought, let alone an addiction.

May I suggest that Manfred might take a look at how the Phoenix NBA and WNBA teams and the Las Vegas NHL team, both faced with sunsetting RSNs, are choosing to deal with these realities.  Each have announced deals with over-the-air TV stations to carry the balance of their schedules, with piad streaming options available for those that can afford it and/or are passionate enough to want a more fully immersed fandom experience.   There’s also a version of that going on with the Los Angeles Clippers, who cut a deal with Nexstar’s Los Angeles station for a partial schedule to put the NBA back on local Los Angeles TV for the first time in many years.  Nexstar just acquired a rare full-power, decently-rated independent station in San Diego, KUSI-TV.  They currently have no ties to any network programming. not even the CW.  There is no reason beyond grandstanding why Manfred shouldn’t seek a deal for linear coveage for at least some of this season’s remaining Padres games, at least until they fall fully out of the post-season race.

Unless perhaps Manfred is simply looking to succeed somewhere with Smith didn’t in this case, but did many times before?

And perhaps because at the root of this issue is a simple cockfight between wanna-be alpha males?

If I were a Padres fan, I’d sure hope that was part of the reason I might not be able to watch the team today.  Sure, anyone with a broadband connection can.  But not everyone has one.  Particularly older fans who have supported this team since the 52-110 days of Clarence Gaston and Clay (My Manager Pulled Me In The Middle Of a No-Hitter) Kirby.  Those that still think a day at Petco Park is heaven.  Who buy a lot of brown and yellow and camo merch and, yes, even those ridiculous City Edition uniforms that look like a color scheme from a nauseous bubble gum manufacturer. 

I don’t root for the Padres.  And, sadly, much as they have a lock on this market, their potential beyond it is limited, at least in media terms.  Because the Dodgers and D-Backs are winning, Mexican viewers aren’t measured by Nielsen and water can’t root.

So come on, Rob.  Follow the lead of more progressive types who want to stick it to Sinclair.  Making a deal with Nexstar, Sinclair’s most fervent and broadest-based competitor in local TV, would be a great way to do so.

I’ll hope against hope that you might be open to it.  Until then, we’ll need some hope from elsewhere.

Perhaps the Padres’ mascot might have some ideas?

Courage…

 

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