RSNs Thinking Beyond Regional Borders

It used to be that the great value for the local sports consumer was tied to his or her regional network.

Launched in 2002, the YES Network’s success is the envy of RSN world

In addition to having a plethora of games, the regional on air network, always on a cable tier above basic, filled the gap on added storytelling and content that the local broadcast outlet could no longer do on the local news, and how even the larger cable players, could not fulfill every day in key markets. Those regional sports networks (RSNs) started out being controlled and run by the rights holders, who delivered a wide swath of year round games, and created shoulder programming for local colleges, even high schools, to satisfy the fan base.

Over time, however, we have seen the dilution of the RSNs, where in most markets there were as many as three or four channels providing live content, but then splitting rights amongst various sports. The business evolved even more when the teams, often in conjunction with a media partner, launched their own media companies as well.

Some like the New York YankeesYES Network, thrived, given the depth of interest of the Yankees. Some, such as the Royals Sports Television Network, did not.

The Royals Sports Television Network (RSTN) and their Mailbag lasted just four seasons

Other teams looked to the future of streaming and hedged bets and interests as to where consumption may go, the best example of that is in Washington, where Ted Leonsis, the CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, set up a digital RSN in the Monumental Sports Network and appears well-positioned for the future with sports gambling, esports and local programming in addition to his stake in the Mystics, Wizards and Caps. Monumental also owns a 30 percent stake in NBC Sports Washington, setting a best of all worlds scenario where Monumental can assume a regional through a transaction while also taking advantage of an established streaming platform.

Monumental’s RSN is digital only, allowing additional flexibility

Where all this plays out is murky, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that one of the biggest regional sports players, NBC Universal, is looking at two very different strategies regarding their seven regional sports networks. The first strategy: streaming, the second, selling. In the end how does this impact not just teams and brands, but the fan dynamic and the media business as well?

“You get synergy between the team and content production and engagement with fans,” Octagon media executive Dan Cohen recently told CNBC.  “If you’re able to merge the data you have on people that come to the arena with your viewership audience, that’s some really strong currency to trade on. There is value in that.”

The value is also not lost on the RSNs that are looking to innovate and thrive with content as well. One of which, Marquee Sports Network, launched in the midst of the pandemic while its principal backer and content provider, the Chicago Cubs, was not on the field.

That launch provided Marquee with an opportunity to be both creative and play to the core audience, Chicago fans and especially Cubs fans, who love everything about “The Friendly Confines.” That balance was also being led by Mike McCarthy, a longtime television executive who has always been known for finding the balance of the innovative and the traditional, especially during his long run at MSG Networks in New York, where the tradition of the Knicks and Rangers fans was not one to be trifled with.

Marquee launched as the pandemic hit the U.S.; perhaps the focus on non-game content will help them succeed?

“For a regional network, the economic challenge is steep, but with the proper support it can and has been done,” McCarthy says. “Things like postgame shows where fans can get their local fix after a nationally carried game comes to mind. I think much like the YES Network, Marquee doesn’t apologize for delivering a total access offering to Cubs fans about their team; that said we have programming centered around The Bears, and a nightly show setting the stage for all Chicago sports, so we think we have a wide appeal.”

McCarthy has also looked for original programming that goes beyond the fans around Lake Michigan, co-creating a show called “Class Is In Session,” in which former Cubs first round pick Doug Glanville speaks with thought leaders on some of the biggest topics of the day off the field—from Name Image Likeness to Black Lives Matter. Glanville, who also teaches at the University of Connecticut, has a wide appeal given his time at other MLB stops as well as his presence on ESPN. It is a signature show which McCarthy sees as having value to other regionals, as well as to brands looking for an effective regional play away from the live games.

Even with the cost efficient spends and the innovative thought on content, the regional networks know that live games rule the roost, and with those live games come the advertising dollars that fuel the rest of the network.

Shared, canned programming only goes so far, while the local games fans care about drive the value.

“As far out as you can see in the future, RSNs will still be a part of the game,” predicts former Turner Sports president and co-founder of YES, Dr. Harvey Schiller to CNBC. “It’s all about the content they provide to the viewer. Regionals have to come up with other things they can offer as part of it, and it’s probably going to be gambling and gaming.”

“If they align that with their product – that’s the future,” Schiller adds.

Ed Desser, who spent two dozen years at the NBA under David Stern, rising to president, television and new media ventures, agrees.

“RSNs have valuable, exclusive content that fans want. The marketplace is changing, but content is still king,” Desser explained in a recent conversation with Sports Broadcast Journal. “RSNs are the incumbents, so they start out with established revenues and credibility that newcomers don’t have,” added “Teams are very cautious about how they approach the platform (media). That is the primary way most fans experience their products. That isn’t something easily entrusted to newcomers. Change will happen, but RSNs still represent value in a changing ecosystem.”

How clear and what those RSN’s will look like in the near future is up for debate. But as we return to play with fans back in the stands in large numbers, it’s the innovators from these challenging times we will be watching…both in business and on our screens.

Featured image from Marquee's Class Is In Session show with
(L to R) Doug Glanville, Sarah Langs and Jimmy Rollins.