Tigers, Red Wings stick with Bally Sports Detroit; is Ilitches’ RSN plan dead?

Detroit News

Detroit — The Ilitches might be cutting the cord on the idea of starting their own Regional Sports Network.

The Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers and Red Wings have re-upped on a multi-year agreement with Bally Sports Detroit to continue broadcasting the team’s games, Olympia Entertainment confirmed Wednesday.

“We are pleased, as momentum builds for the Tigers and Red Wings, that our long-time broadcast partners at Bally Sports Detroit will continue to produce exciting game broadcasts, unique insider access for our fans, and inspiring stories about the impactful work our athletes are doing in the community throughout Detroit and the state of Michigan,” Olympia Entertainment said in a statement to The Detroit News.

The length and financial terms of the agreement were not released.

The Tigers’ financial benefit had been estimated to be worth more than $50 million a year under the old TV deal. Market trends would indicate a new deal would be more lucrative. The Kansas City Royals reportedly re-upped with Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns the Bally Sports-branded RSNs, for $52 million a year. Detroit is the nation’s 14th-largest market, Kansas City is 32nd.

The Red Wings’ annual payout is much less than the Tigers’.

The new TV deal aligns with an offseason in which the Tigers have said they plan to be active in free agency. The Tigers are coming off a 77-85 season and with several top prospects on the verge of promotion.

From 2006-14, the Tigers had some of the best local ratings in Major League Baseball, multiple times reaching No. 1 in the league. What then was Fox Sports Detroit reaped the rewards, being able to charge a premium for advertisements. FSD expanded pregame and postgame shows, even having the Tigers move their home first pitch back a couple minutes to fit in more spots. Ratings have dropped since 2015, as the ballclub embarked on a rebuild, enduring a 114-loss season and two 98-loss seasons.

How much ratings rise should the Tigers return to contention in 2022 remains to be seen. Bally Sports Detroit isn’t available via most of the popular streaming services, like YouTube TV, Sling TV and Hulu. BSD is available through Xfinity, DirecTV and AT&T U-verse. It has failed to reach an agreement with Dish Network and most cord-cutting streaming options, in what’s become an increasingly tough tug-of-war over per-customer channel pricing. Bally Sports reportedly is considering a monthly subscription service of its own.

BSD became the new branded home for the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons in March, after Sinclair bought 21 Regional Sports Networks from Disney in 2019 for $10.6 billion. (Sinclair sold the naming rights to Bally’s). Disney acquired Twenty-First Century Fox in 2018, but as condition of the sale was forced by the U.S. Justice Department to spin off the RSNs, over monopoly concerns. Disney owns ESPN and ABC.

Since the purchase by Sinclair, the company has reported massive losses, including $3.21 billion in the third quarter of 2020. Industry analysts see that as a signal that it overpaid for the RSNs given the changing landscape of how people consume TV, particularly sports.

In 2018, the Ilitches announced they were exploring the idea of launching their own Regional Sports Network, like the New York Yankees’ YES Network or the New York Knicks’ and Rangers’ Madison Square Garden Network. Launching an RSN makes fiscal sense for deep-pocketed owners with multiple franchises, like the Ilitches. They don’t have to pay rights fees to the teams, plus they get to collect all the advertising revenue. Bur they also have to assume the significant costs of starting a network, and then running it.

“As leaders in the rapidly evolving sports and entertainment industry,” Chris Granger, then group president for sports and entertainment for Ilitch Holdings, said in 2018, “the creation of a new network would be a natural business extension for our organization.”

It’s now unclear where those plans stand. Olympia Entertainment declined to elaborate beyond the statement confirming the Tigers’ and Wings’ extension with Bally Sports Detroit. The Ilitches have secured trademarks for some possible RSN names, such as Detroit Sports Network.

The Red Wings and Tigers have aired exclusively on BSD (previously FSD, Fox Sports Net Detroit and FSN Detroit) since 2008. They always have extended their contracts on the same time frame. The Wings’ former deal expired at the end of the 2020-21 season, and the Tigers’ old deal expired at the end of the 2021 season. The Pistons, owned by Tom Gores, also air on BSD. Their contract wasn’t up in 2021.

BSD isn’t planning any on-air talent changes, outside of Manon Rheaume, the first woman to play in the NHL, joining the Red Wings’ telecasts for pregame and postgame analysis. Decisions on the Tigers’ booth will be made in the coming weeks, after the traditional post-season assessment.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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