Since I started writing periodically about the showdown between TV providers and regional sports networks about 18 months ago, two things have been true:
1 — It remains the single subject about which I get the most emails from readers, most of them wondering if I have any good news to share about an impasse being solved.
2 — I very rarely have had any good news to share.
Sorry to say, that remains the case with this latest update. The 21 regional sports networks — of which Fox Sports North is of most interest to the vast majority of you locally — owned by Sinclair have disappeared from various services with alarming frequency, and you shouldn't hold your breath that they are coming back anytime soon.
If you've stopped paying attention: YouTube TV dropped regional sports networks at the end of September after the MLB season was over. Hulu + Live TV dropped them a few weeks later.
An optimistic take at the time was that with few live sports on those channels in the coming months, it would give Sinclair and those streaming services time to negotiate new deals without causing pain to viewers.
Perhaps that will still happen and I will be able to give you a good news update at some point. But I'm beginning to believe a more pessimistic take instead: That those services dropped RSNs when people wouldn't notice them in hopes of avoiding a bigger backlash.
The NBA started up Tuesday. Many games — including Wolves vs. Pistons on FSN — will be shown on regional sports networks starting Wednesday.
If you pay for YouTube TV, Hulu, Dish Network or Sling TV, among others, you will not be able to watch those games — or any others on the channel. If you're a Wild fan who subscribes to one of those services, it means that unless something dramatic changes between now and the start of the NHL season on Jan. 13, you are out of luck. Just a few months after that, it will be baseball season.
But at least your provider will be cheerful about it when you ask.
If you have traditional cable or a satellite carrier other than Dish Network, which many of you have, you will still be able to get FSN. The only streaming service that still has FSN is AT&T TV. But that service is more expensive than others.
So what's really happening? In my estimation, two things:
One, Sinclair has run into a major money problem since acquiring the RSNs last year. They are trying to dig their way out in a couple of ways, including a partnership with Bally's that our own Phil Miller wrote about in great detail and which could introduce in-game gambling to viewers in the near future.
Another way, which Sinclair also described when announcing the Bally's initiative last month, is to put together its own monthly subscription service to stream its regional sports networks. If they could pull that off, and you could pay for, say, only Fox Sports North instead of a lot of other channels you don't watch, it might eventually be a boon to viewers.
But that's a complicated endeavor that involves leagues and other stakeholders, so it doesn't sound like it would happen anytime soon. In the mean time, fans who "cut the cord" and jumped to streaming services for lower-cost access to sports are left in limbo and without the channel they really want — bringing me to the second thing happening.
Those streaming services are already raising prices from early rates intended to lure in viewers. Hulu started at $39.99 a couple years ago. Last week, it made another in a series of price hikes to $64.99. If enough subscribers are sticking with streaming services even as they drop channels and raise prices, what's their incentive to negotiate with Sinclair for expensive rights that might push their prices even higher?
The net effect might be to push fans who can't do without watching their home teams — at least those not willing to explore the somewhat risky world of illegal streaming — back to more expensive cable or satellite options. I'm mulling such a thing because, as a Hulu subscriber, my job becomes harder if I don't have the option to watch the almost 100% of Wolves, Wild and Twins games (plus many United and Lynx games) shown on FSN.
I had Sling TV before they dropped RSNs more than a year ago, at which point I added Hulu. A more expensive two-year commitment where I (hopefully) don't have to worry about losing FSN again is tempting as I grow weary of this game of Whac-A-Mole, but I'm also curious about a standalone FSN streaming product that could arrive sometime in 2021.
All of this is a VERY small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it is also frustrating as a consumer to be caught in the middle of a leverage battle. Judging by the number of emails I get, a lot of you are frustrated as well.
Maybe the only way we truly "win" is to drop everything altogether for a while.
Here are four other things I'm thinking about:
*As noted above, the Wolves open their season Wednesday night. That naturally leads me to think about the Michael Lewis book "Boomerang" — about the aftermath of the economic collapse a decade ago — which I just finished. Wait, what?
Hear me out. In it, he travels to several impacted countries in economic disarray. Ireland is one of them. As part of an anecdote, Lewis describes how many Irish people believe fairies exist. They might not outright admit it, but in their hearts they do — and the ultimate reason is, perhaps, that the upside of believing outweighs the upside of not believing.
If you are a Wolves fan with eternal optimism despite one playoff appearance since 2004, this might describe you.
*Speaking of the Wolves, if you haven't read Chris Hine's story on the challenging season ahead for Karl-Anthony Towns as he forges on following a devastating offseason, you should go do that now.
*The defending champion Lakers lost to the Clippers on Tuesday's NBA opening night. Then again, they were playing on perhaps the most challenging night of the year. Just ask an expert who has had to endure the burden four times:
*In the other Tuesday NBA opener, the Nets routed the Warriors 125-99. It was, to say the least, a rough opener for former Wolves wing Andrew Wiggins: 4 for 16 shooting, 13 points, two rebounds and one assist for a minus-28 in 31 minutes.