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Sports Media: Sinclair sets soft launch date for Bally Sports+ streaming service

Sinclair will soft launch its local sports streaming service in five markets on June 23, with a full launch still scheduled for the fall.

This marks the first time that Sinclair has set a specific date on the rollout of the much anticipated service that will start streaming local MLB games in Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Milwaukee and Tampa.

The launch of Sinclair’s direct-to-consumer service, which it’s calling Bally Sports+, has a huge amount of importance in the sports business given the declining subscriber numbers among regional sports networks.

As media companies, leagues and teams try to figure out how to preserve the value of local sports rights, they are testing out streaming services as a way to maintain revenue sources.

Earlier this month, NESN launched a streaming service in the Boston area for Red Sox and Bruins games. NESN is selling NESN 360 for $30 per month or $330 per year.

By comparison, Sinclair will sell Bally Sports+ for $20 per month or $190 per year.

The service will start streaming local MLB games in Kansas City, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee and Tampa.getty images

I sat down recently with Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley and COO Rob Weisbord at their headquarters in Cockeysville, Md., just outside of Baltimore.

Three months from now, at some point in the fiscal year’s third quarter, Sinclair will roll the service out nationwide.

“This is all about just testing, learning, iterating, and getting our full marketing plans in place,” Ripley said of the soft launch. “There isn’t necessarily a milestone that I can point you towards that says, this is what marks when we take the next step.”

Pay-TV subscribers already have access to streamed games through Sinclair’s TV Everywhere apps that are treated as add-ons to pay-TV subscriptions. 

Sinclair’s executives expect their relationships with subscribers will change once they actually start paying for the streaming service.

“TV Everywhere wasn’t a focus,” Ripley said. “We didn’t make a lot of money off that. Our whole mentality is going to change and say, when the user comes, what does he or she do first? Where do they go? Are they interacting with our gamification features?

“We’re talking a three-month ramp from soft to full launch. But we thought it was a smart idea to get some reps under our belt before we go wider.”

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year, Sinclair said it will have at least 309,000 paying subscribers to its streaming service by the end of the year. A best-case scenario would see Sinclair gain 975,000 paying subscribers to its service.

Ripley feels a need to launch a streaming service to attract sports fans who do not subscribe to traditional pay-TV services.

“When we first went down this road three years ago, we did extensive research on this segment and identified a huge amount of fandom outside of the pay TV bundle,” Ripley said. “Flash forward to launch, two, three years later that has only gotten bigger. It’s a very under-served, very large portion of the population that would want this product, but can’t get it.”

Sinclair CEO Chris Ripleysinclair

Ripley envisions the streaming service existing side-by-side with the linear TV service — a “hybrid environment,” he called it — for the foreseeable future.

“It’s really the only way the ecosystem will work, and it’s going to work that way for years to come,” he said. “You can’t just be solely reliant on a direct-to-consumer product. That would be a really problematic situation for everybody in the ecosystem, if that’s all you had.

“The real promise of direct to consumer is getting people off of linear analog experiences and onto digital experiences where you know who they are, you have their payment information, and you know their preferences, and you can deliver them interactive experiences.”

To that end, Sinclair will make gaming a big focus of its Bally Sports+ streaming service.

“The math for the whole sports industry gets really interesting when you have a scaled audience on a digital platform where you can deliver interactive experiences,” Ripley said. “That’s because this younger generation is really interested in interactive experiences. They’re far more interested in sports betting than their parents.”

Ripley quoted stats that say 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds either bet on sports or are interested in doing so. “Way less than 60% actually watch sports in that cohort,” he said. “One of the problems with that cohort is those that are interested in sports, aren’t actually watching the games — they’re watching highlights afterwards. The conundrum is, how do you get that, translate that interest, interactivity and sports betting, into actually game watching.”

Look for this week’s edition of SBJ Media for even more from SBJ’s exclusive interview with Ripley and Weisbord.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his weekly newsletter and listen to his weekly podcast.

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