This month the Pro Football Hall of Fame began the process of naming its class of 2024. The Senior Committee, tasked with choosing players who last played over 25 years ago, and the Coach/Contributor Committee, tasked with choosing persons who made their mark on football in capacities other than as a player (with coaches required to be retired at least five years), each named lists of at least 25 semifinalists, and this Thursday they further narrowed the field to 12… semifinalists (more on that in a bit). Next month the Senior Committee will choose three finalists while the Coach/Contributor committee will name one, which will move directly to the final stage of consideration in January where the full selection committee will vote up-or-down to induct each candidate into the Hall of Fame. As such most of these candidates won’t be inducted this year and some may never be inducted at all, but we can still see who the Hall of Fame voters consider most worthy among the candidates in each category, who might be likely to be chosen by the committees in future years, and look at the relevant honors and argue over who should be inducted.
Last night I talked about how teams are dealing with the collapse of the regional sports network market and how teams with expiring deals with the collapsing Bally Sports and AT&T Sportsnet groups – the Phoenix Suns, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the Utah Jazz – are embracing broadcast television as the way to reach a broad segment of fans, coupled with direct-to-consumer products to reach fans without access to linear television stations otherwise. Given all the other developments happening in the space there’s no guarantee that this model will triumph, especially with Rob Manfred still committed to MLB trying to take over rights to as many teams as he can, but it’s certainly a promising approach for a subset of teams. But what station groups are best positioned to take advantage of the situation and potentially pick up rights for teams whose deals are expiring or being shaken up by the ongoing proceedings, and where might teams looking for a new home end up? How much will teams embrace this approach compared to finding new RSN homes or returning to their current ones?
When we look back, we may find that the end of the age of the regional sports network came very slowly, and then all at once.
That’s not to say that the age of the RSN is actually over, of course. Only two RSN groups are in serious trouble: Bally Sports and its parent Diamond Sports Group with its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, and AT&T Sportsnet, which will be shut down by new parent Warner Bros. Discovery at the end of baseball season. Other RSNs and RSN groups continue to be profitable, and even within those groups there are RSNs that won’t be shut down entirely; Diamond has made payments to all but three MLB teams it has rights to for the rest of the season, and the Root Sports network in the Pacific Northwest, majority-owned by the Seattle Mariners, will not only remain extant but possibly remain operated by WBD. The problems with those two groups are that Sinclair overpaid for the former Fox Sports RSNs and didn’t have much of a plan to deal with the collapse of the cable bundle, not helped by Major League Baseball and its commissioner Rob Manfred deciding to play hardball with direct-to-consumer streaming rights, that Discovery may not have even wanted to inherit the RSNs (and for a while I wasn’t even completely certain they had) when they took WarnerMedia off of AT&T’s hands, and both of them ran into newly emboldened cable operators dropping them left and right, with RSNs all but disappearing from Dish Network and most streaming TV providers. The former Fox RSNs no longer benefitted from being lumped in with the rest of Fox’s networks, and AT&T and WBD never put any real effort into lumping their RSNs in with their national cable networks, while the move to WBD meant those RSNs were no longer co-owned with a distributor that could effectively subsidize the network. The NBC Sports RSNs have the benefit of other networks to bundle with and Comcast providing guaranteed carriage, so they’re in nowhere near as bad a shape.
And yet, should the Bally Sports networks completely collapse, the only RSN in the entire country that wouldn’t be at least partially owned by at least one of the teams it carries would be NBC Sports California in northern California – assuming that network even survives the pending move of the Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas. The Bally networks account for around half the US teams in the three major sports that provide content to RSNs, so even if its problems can be attributed to Sinclair’s mismanagement the fate of the Bally RSNs would effectively determine the fate of the RSN market as a whole, and their collapse would mark the point where it became clear that RSNs are no longer a license to print money and can only sustain themselves under specific economic circumstances, be they some combination of being owned by a team, owned by a distributor, or owned by a company able and willing to bundle them with other popular cable networks. And just because other RSNs are doing fine financially now doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be; cord-cutting is continuing apace, weakening the revenue streams for other RSNs (MSG was reportedly already flirting with bankruptcy itself this spring), and with potentially over half the teams in each league caught up in the proceedings, what they do now will help set the path for everyone else. Do they simply take over their existing RSN, or start a new one? Do the leagues take over the RSNs and use them to transition to a new streaming-focused distribution model? Or do teams and leagues rediscover a technology that’s been largely ignored for the last few decades but could be perfect for this new era?
Way back in 2009, Steven Pemberton, a programmer and researcher who had contributed to many of the bedrocks of the modern Web, including XHTML and CSS, gave a presentation on his vision of the next evolution of the Web. While the first iteration of the Web, what could be called “Web 1.0”, was based around individual, isolated websites, mostly operated by brands and professionals, the “Web 2.0” paradigm that sprouted over the course of the preceding decade was based around centralized platforms, designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to contribute, allowing countless people to congregate in a single place and creating hubs for content created by thousands or millions of people. Social media services such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter represented the pinnacle of the Web 2.0 experience, but it also covered blogging sites like Blogger, WordPress, and the later Tumblr, more specialized services such as YouTube and LinkedIn, and even sites like Wikipedia where the sum total of everyone’s contributions is more important than each person’s individual contributions.