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A regional sports network bankruptcy means some baseball fans may not see games on TV

Juan Soto #22 of the San Diego Padres connects for a two-run homerun during the first inning of a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park on April 03, 2023 in San Diego, California.
Sean M. Haffey
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Getty Images
Juan Soto #22 of the San Diego Padres connects for a two-run homerun during the first inning of a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park on April 03, 2023 in San Diego, California.

Updated April 13, 2023 at 1:06 PM ET

Diamond Sports Group's bankruptcy filing last month could disrupt America's sports media industry and leave some fans in the dark — at least temporarily.

Spring has arrived, and with it, the return of a new Major League Baseball season. The sound of a wooden bat hitting a baseball is once again echoing through all 30 Major League ballparks.

For many fans, like lifelong San Diego Padres supporter Lance Richardson, the start of the season marks the beginning of an annual ritual that has become part of their DNA.

"The team is practically like one of my children," Richardson says.

Watching baseball games on TV has become a daily routine for millions of fans across the country. But the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports, which owns and operates 19 regional sports networks across the U.S., has created some anxiety among fans, including Richardson.

"How or where I would be able to watch the games, there is a lot of uncertainty," he says.

This uncertainty will continue as the company goes through the bankruptcy process.

Diamond Sports' regional sports networks, which are branded as Bally Sports, are broadcasting professional and college sports in specific geographic areas, such as Southern California or the Southeast.

Changing business model of regional sports broadcasting

The business model of regional sports networks has come under scrutiny in recent years.

This is primarily driven by cord-cutting, which refers to the cancellation of cable or satellite pay-TV subscriptions in favor of streaming services. Since 2012, about 25 million U.S. households have cut the cord, according to media reports.

"[Regional sports networks] were really hit by two things happening at once cord cutting, and then COVID came in at a very inopportune time because there were no more sports being broadcast anywhere," says Jon Lewis, owner and operator SportsMediaWatch.com.

As the trend of cord-cutting continues, cable and satellite providers are looking to reduce costs, and regional sports broadcasts are often the first casualties.

Regional sports channels not only attract a relatively small audience, but they are also some of the most expensive channels within pay-TV bundles. According to media research firm Kagan, a subdivision of S&P Global, many networks charge upwards of $5 per month per subscriber.

"The situation right now is pretty simple, [regional sports networks] are providing programming that is important to a very specific sector of fan, but it does not necessarily matter to the broad TV viewing audience," says Lewis.

The loss of revenue, combined with the high costs of broadcasting rights deals, meant that Diamond Sports was bleeding money.

Fans cheer during the Opening Day game of the 2023 Major League Baseball season between the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres at Petco Park in San Diego, California.
Denis Poroy / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Fans cheer during the Opening Day game of the 2023 Major League Baseball season between the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres at Petco Park in San Diego, California.

MLB set to take over

Diamond Sports owns the broadcast rights to 14 MLB teams, including the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers.

The league announced that it would take over the broadcast of any team affected by the situation.

"Major League Baseball is ready to produce and distribute games to fans in their local markets in the event that Diamond or any other regional sports network is unable to do so as required by their agreement with our Clubs," the league said in a statement emailed to NPR.

The league has more than 20 years of broadcast experience and hired local media professionals in anticipation of this potential development. But what a takeover by the league would mean for fans in terms of the viewing experience remains to be seen.

California Dreamin'

At age 54, Richardson is about as old as the San Diego Padres themselves.

Lance Richardson (right) standing next to Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield on the filed of Jack Murphy Stadium during the 1977 season.
/ Lance Richardson
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Lance Richardson
Lance Richardson (right) standing next to Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield on the filed of Jack Murphy Stadium during the 1977 season.

Like many other Padres fans, he despises the Los Angeles Dodgers and hopes that 2023 will be the year when the San Diego secures its first World Series title.

"The excitement going into this season, it exceeds what I've seen in any prior season," says Richardson.

Last season, the team made it all the way to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

With so much hype around the team, any disruption – even a temporary one – would be unwelcome news for Richardson.

"I'd be very disappointed and a little bit bitter," he says.

Rafael Nam edited this story for audio, and Majd Al-Waheidi edited it for digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.