Commissioner Rob Manfred covered a wide range of topics in yesterday’s press conference from the owners’ meetings. Along with comments on the Orioles’ sale agreement and the A’s ballpark plans in Las Vegas, he spoke of a desire to create an in-market streaming bundle as soon as next year.
“Realistically, my target to having a digital package I can take to market would be for the ’25 season,” the commissioner told reporters (link via Evan Drellich of the Athletic). The hope is to include at least 14 teams in a streaming bundle they can market directly to consumers without blackout restrictions.
MLB already makes out-of-market streaming for all 30 teams available via its MLB.TV platform. Most fans are unable to stream in-market games on MLB.TV because of restrictions in teams’ regional broadcasting contracts. With the RSN model on shaky ground for a number of clubs, MLB could be able to work around blackout issues for a number of organizations in the relatively near future.
The Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy provides the clearest avenue. Diamond has already dropped its deals with the Padres and Diamondbacks, putting the onus on MLB to handle those broadcasts. Meanwhile, AT&T abandoned its contracts with the Rockies, Astros, Pirates and Mariners this offseason. MLB is handling Colorado broadcasts this year. The Mariners, Astros and Pirates have all taken those responsibilities on their own, with the Astros and Pirates partnering with teams from other leagues in their respective cities as part of a new broadcasting arrangement.
Diamond is going to carry broadcasts for its remaining 12 teams in 2024. It is honoring its contracts in full with nine teams* and reached deals at slightly reduced rights fees to handle Rangers, Guardians and Twins broadcasts for another season. Drellich tweeted this morning that the bankruptcy court approved those contracts, as expected.
Whether Diamond will be able to maintain its operations beyond this year remains to be seen. The conglomerate is hopeful that it can stay in business after agreeing to sell whatever MLB, NHL and NBA streaming rights it possessed to Amazon in a deal that’ll bring in a short-term cash influx of $450MM. MLB officials have expressed some skepticism about that being enough to keep Diamond afloat for the long haul.
If Diamond were to collapse after next season, that’d revert the broadcasting rights for those 12 teams back to MLB. In addition to the three it already possesses and the potential to negotiate with Seattle, Houston, and Pittsburgh, the league could shop around two-thirds of its teams on an in-market streaming bundle by next year. MLB would likely have a harder time negotiating in-market streaming rights back from franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs that are on stabler footing and handle distribution of their games on RSNs owned at least in part by the team.
Once there’s more clarity on the broadcasting situation, it seems the league will start laying the groundwork for a potential expansion process. “We’re going to have to get our footing on local media a little bit better. In times of uncertainty, it’s hard to talk about additional change,” Manfred said when asked about expansion (link via Jesse Rogers of ESPN). “Having said that, I have five years left. Those teams won’t be playing by the time I’m done but I would like the process along and [cities] selected.”
As Manfred indicated, his contract runs for another five seasons. The owners voted last July to extend his tenure until January 2029. While there’s little doubt they’d approve another extension if Manfred wanted to continue into the 2030s, his comments seem to suggest he could step away after this term.
That’d put the 2025-28 seasons as a loose timeline for the league to seriously evaluate options for moving from 30 to 32 teams. Manfred has previously made clear that there’d be no expansion consideration until the A’s and Rays stadium situations were sorted out. With those moving closer to resolution, albeit with plenty of controversy in the A’s case, expansion should be a more serious topic by the second half of the decade.
*Angels, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Marlins, Rays, Reds, Royals, and Tigers