Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility New network name, but Lightning TV dispute still leaves fans in limbo | #sports | #elderly | #seniors – Active Lifestyle Media

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SportsNew network name, but Lightning TV dispute still leaves fans in limbo | #sports | #elderly | #seniors

New network name, but Lightning TV dispute still leaves fans in limbo | #sports | #elderly | #seniors

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TAMPA — Ron Hytoff has been a Lightning fan since moving to Tampa Bay in 1997. The 75-year-old retiree depends on TV to follow his favorite hockey team, even before the pandemic prevented fans from attending games.

For Hytoff and many other local fans, this has been a frustrating season. The Lightning are playing well in their defense of the Stanley Cup title, but as a Frontier cable subscriber, Hytoff has been unable to watch Lightning games live because Frontier no longer carries the regional sports network, the just-renamed Bally Sports Sun (formerly Fox Sports Sun), that broadcasts games.

It’s the same situation for subscribers of TV streaming services Hulu and YouTubeTV, which also don’t carry the Lightning TV rightsholder because of a longstanding carriage fee dispute between the network’s owner, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, and cable providers and streamers.

Related: No easy solutions inside Lightning TV mess

Hytoff, the retired president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital who lives in Avila, said changing subscribers would involve getting technicians to come in and replace all of his electronics. So instead of watching games live, he relies on the condensed highlights posted online postgame.

“I have found a way to at least watch the highlights the following day on my computer,” Hytoff said. “The NHL publishes about a five- to nine-minute summary of all games, and one can choose the Lightning. That is the best suggestion I can make to all the fans out there who Frontier can care less about.”

Lightning fans aren’t alone. In all, the 21 Bally Sports regional sports networks are the rights-holders for 42 NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball teams, including the Lightning and Tampa Bay Rays locally. For Lightning fans who can’t follow along, their allegiance is being tested.

Seminole Heights resident Peter deGolian, 59, finds himself instead watching other teams on NHL Network.

“If I were a Lightning executive,” said deGolian, who attended a couple games a year before the pandemic, “I would be asking myself, ‘How many of our fans are sitting home watching live streams of our competitors because our games are not widely available in the local market?’ What impact is that going to have on the loyalty of our youngest viewers that are our future fans? It is sad because my (8-year-old) son and I used to enjoy watching the games together.”

No easy, or quick, solutions

The Lightning are trying to make it back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, but watching the team play has proven difficult this season for many fans.
The Lightning are trying to make it back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, but watching the team play has proven difficult this season for many fans. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning make approximately $10 million annually from Bally Sports to be the local rights-holder, which is a significant amount in any year, but even more so during the pandemic. The length of the team’s current contract hasn’t been disclosed.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Lightning CEO Steve Griggs said the team has ”encouraged both sides to work in a timely manner towards a resolution so that all of Bolts Nation can watch our quest for another Stanley Cup.”

“The Lightning understand the frustrations of fans who currently aren’t able to watch games on television locally due to ongoing carriage disputes between Sinclair Broadcast Group and select providers,” Griggs said. “With our limited fan capacity (at Amalie Arena), we want as many Bolts fans as possible to be able to view our broadcasts. Fans still have options and Bally Sports Sun (formerly Fox Sports Sun) remains widely available across Tampa Bay.”

Spectrum cable, a Lightning sponsor, and AT&T TV streaming are the two main ways fans can watch games on Bally Sports Sun.

Bally Sports reports that ratings for Lightning games on the regional network are up 23 percent in viewership from last season, but down nine percent from the Lightning’s record-breaking ratings year in the 2018-19 season. Also, live streaming on the Fox Sports Go app is up 43 percent year over year.

But those hoping that Bally Sports Sun will return to their channel listings may be waiting a long time. Frontier is emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And Sinclair, which took on huge debt to acquire the Fox Sports regional networks, reported a $12.551 billion debt in its fourth-quarter earnings call in February. Both companies are looking for ways to get cash to help their financial situations. And as firm as Sinclair will hold to its carriage fee demands from Frontier, it will do the same with streamers like YouTubeTV and Hulu, which are owned by huge corporations like Google and Disney.

“It’s going to get worse, unfortunately, before it gets better,” said Elliott Wiser, an adjunct professor in journalism and digital communication at USF, “because these companies have to service enormous debt. You have the sports teams, this is their golden goose. They need to get money from their deals. And the streamers and the cable companies face enormous pressure and enormous competition.

“At the end of the day, it’s the way the system is,” said Wiser, a 38-year veteran of the media industry and former executive for Bright House Networks, Bay News 9 and WTSP-TV Channel 10. “If you want to say what’s the solution, I think you have to look at deregulation, you have to look at some other things as well. It’s just unfortunate. I think what makes it even harder this time is everyone looked at the streamers as the savior, but a lot of them are owned by very large corporations, so David has become Goliath.”

Fans could blame Sinclair for holding their regional sports networks as ransom. But in actuality it’s no different than the exclusivity that other streaming apps like Netflix, HBO Max and Disney Plus feature. And as part of ESPN’s new national TV rights deal with the NHL starting next season, for fans to ensure they will get to watch every game of their favorite team, they will have to not only subscribe to their regional network and ESPN, but also ESPN Plus and Hulu, where some games will be exclusively offered. ESPN, like Hulu, is owned by Disney.

Bally Sports paid Sinclair $85 million for naming rights, and the partnership with the casino brand will focus on adding gamification and sports betting elements on broadcasts and through a new app that is slated to launch soon. Bally also plans to offer content direct to consumer, but that isn’t slated to happen until 2022, according to February’s earnings call.

“The days of sports being ubiquitous and being offered everywhere, those are over,” Wiser said. “The one thing that we’ve known for many years in the media business, when you do research, the two things that will draw people to a channel are going to be live sporting events and live breaking news. And that’s why ESPN for many years, I’m going back 10 years ago, they were getting over $5 per subscriber, because they had live sports.

“Let’s face it, the National Hockey League, MLB, they’re not dumb. The days of giving everything to just one provider, it will never ever happen again. You have a better chance of Babe Ruth coming back from the dead.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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