Comcast, though it is the No. 1 U.S. cable operator, has virtually no customers in New York City, but a healthy six-figure number of them in the suburbs are at risk of losing service. The regional sports network airs New York Knicks NBA games as well as New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers and Islanders NHL contests, plus Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls. The NHL season is due to start October 12 and the NBA on October 19, with pre-season telecasts of both sports already under way.
The deadline for the current carriage agreement is Thursday at midnight. A person familiar with the situation says negotiations are not active heading toward the deadline. MSG has begun running a crawl across the screen along with other messages across TV and digital platforms about the state of affairs. (See an example below.)
The snag is just the latest in the rapidly evolving realm of RSNs. While they are still relative ratings magnets and generators of significant ad revenue and cash flow, the networks follow an economic model designed more for the previous media era than the current one. Cord-cutting and direct-to-consumer streaming options have eroded their leverage. Some distributors have drawn a bright line with RSNs, leading to protracted carriage fights. The Bally Sports portfolio, which is controlled by Sinclair Broadcast Group, has been dark on several platforms for months. Dish Network, which has been at odds with Sinclair since 2019, hit the skids with MSG Network back in 2010, and that dispute still remains unresolved. Comcast’s own NBCUniversal just began warning YouTube TV customers that they were at risk of losing access to 14 networks, including six RSNs.
“We’ve been working to reach an agreement that is fair, reasonable and consistent with other major providers, while Comcast is demanding terms they’d never accept for their own regional sports networks, including SNY in New York,” MSG said in a statement. “Xfinity customers do not deserve to lose MSG Networks’ coverage of their local sports teams, which includes hundreds of live games for the upcoming NBA and NHL seasons. MSG Networks is ready to continue working in good faith.”
Comcast rarely ends up in 11th-hour carriage drama, though New York Yankees fans still grumble about an impasse that left the YES network unplugged on Comcast systems from mid-2015 to the first week of 2017.
“Comcast’s agreements with programmers expire from time to time,” the company said in a statement. “We have successfully negotiated thousands of agreements with programmers and reached agreements in almost every instance. We would like to reach a fair deal with MSG that makes sense for our customers before the current one expires, allowing us to continue offering their networks on our channel lineup.”
Ratings for NBA and NHL games posted double-digit increases last season compared with the prior one, though Covid-19 makes those comparisons inexact. Lingering complications of the pandemic delayed the start of last year’s NBA and NHL seasons. On RSNs, baseball is by far the biggest driver of ratings and revenue among all sports.