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The great debate for every sports league and team in America: maximum profits or maximum exposure?

The great debate for every sports league and team in America: maximum profits or maximum exposure?

In Atlanta, the 23-inch wide, plush leather Truist Club Seats are located in the first few rows behind home plate, with access to an exclusive suite that features table-clothed dining, a private bar and “farm-to-fork” food options.

This is the most exclusive section of the Braves home stadium. Each seat even offers a small television so patrons can watch the game broadcast while sitting just feet away from the live action.

Or, they used to be able to watch.

Due to a contract dispute between Comcast and the parent company of Bally Sports, which airs Braves games, the broadcast is not only unavailable in millions of homes across the Southeast, but even inside Atlanta’s own stadium. These days even a big-money seat can't get you a Braves game on TV.

Comcast has blacked out 15 Bally Sports networks across the country, impacting not just Atlanta, but MLB teams in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa and the Texas Rangers. Adding to the problem is MLB.TV’s blackout rules.

Who is in the right and who is in the wrong here is its own lengthy and complicated debate. It hardly matters to fans who just want to watch their favorite team play, not to mention the teams who want to get their product out to potential Truist Club Seat customers.

The current malaise of Major League Baseball has been playing out for years and isn’t likely to get better. In short, due to cord cutting, viewing trends and audience fragmentation, regional sports networks (RSNs), which have served both teams and customers well for decades, are in trouble.

Diamond Sports Group, which owns Bally Sports and has exclusive broadcast rights to 42 teams across the NBA, MLB and NHL, declared bankruptcy last year and despite restructuring faces an uncertain future.

That leaves hardcore fans frustrated and teams in somewhat of a panic. While some people will follow along via radio, find a streaming offering or wait out the carriage/subscription fee battle, how many others either are finding something else to do, not paying any attention or never becoming a fan in the first place?

RSNs and cable television have been great to local sports franchises. While much of the media attention is on league-wide national television deals, it's the night-in, night-out regular-season action that has fueled professional sports growth for generations.

The late-1980s proliferation of basic cable, in need of endless hours of programming to fill, was particularly valuable, both in direct media rights and the marketing of the team to fans.

No one knows this better than the Braves, who by being on Ted Turner’s old TBS “SuperStation” had games beamed around the country and, in turn, developed a massive national fan base.

Times change, of course. Cord cutting and other industry trends are strangling pro sports' golden goose. It’s not just money that might be lost, but the chance to draw in casual fans when a team begins to win, be a part of the daily life of the die hard and maybe, most ominously, completely miss out on connecting with new potential supporters, especially young ones.

As modern media becomes more niche driven, teams and even leagues have to balance whether to seek maximum profits or maximum exposure.

Do you want a lot of money via subscriptions or streaming premiums? Or do you want a lot of fans via easy access and widespread distribution?

Consider Major League Soccer, which, in Lionel Messi, boasts the kind of jaw-dropping, attention-grabbing megastar it has long sought to win over America's casual soccer fans. Soccer in general, and MLS in particular, has rarely been a big television draw in America, but never before has there been a player like Messi delivering night-in, night-out highlights. This was a big opportunity.

Yet Messi’s Inter Miami games are mostly behind a subscription paywall on Apple TV, itself a subscription streamer. Big-time soccer fans may be willing to pay. Casual and potential future big-time soccer fans likely never will, a missed opportunity — Messi's contract with Inter Miami expires after next season — that weighs against MLS’ decision to sign a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple.

That’s going to be the debate in the future for every league and every team.

The NFL has built its popularity on accessibility of its games, although it was once fearful that television would hurt ticket sales. The league used to black out all local broadcasts of games, even playoff sellouts, until 1972 when President Richard Nixon drove legislation requiring restrictions to be lifted if a game sold out 72 hours before kickoff.

The sport's popularity exploded and blackouts were eventually dropped for even non-sellouts. Yet these days, the NFL has a weekly game on Amazon Prime Video and this season moved a playoff game to Peacock.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s next broadcast deal is expected to include games on Amazon, including a conference finals every other year. There are billions to be made, but how much of the audience for a, say, future Anthony Edwards vs. Victor Wembanyama Western Conference finals clash will be lost?

Leagues and franchises can hope fans will continue to pay and pay for more and more specific channels, but there is a breaking point. Perhaps it has already been reached.

These are the concerns going forward, playing out in real time for MLB.

The old way was a great way but it can’t be the new way, leaving teams seeking fans and fans seeking teams stuck in the middle like never before.

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