Bally Sports (the Sinclair-owned service that owns the local TV rights to Sporting Kansas City and the Kansas City Royals) continues to move toward offering a direct-to-consumer streaming option in 2022, something many fans have wanted since the well-documented squabbles between Sinclair and various bundle providers have resulted in the appropriately acronymed BS getting dropped from most streaming and services. But the news around this development has also commonly focused on the cost, which would have to be fairly high based on the overall economics of regional sports networks. Values around $20/month have been suggested, sparking a fair amount of umbrage among commentators as being awfully high for such a limited service (after all, Sling Blue or Orange are $35/month and come with far more channel options, and ESPN+ is $7/month and comes with exponentially more sports content).
But when I dug into SKC's schedule and what it would take to watch every game in 2022, I found that the highest cost to viewers isn't BS, it's the handful of marquee games on national channels like FS1 and ESPN.
SKC’s 34-game regular season runs about eight months. Looking at their schedule as currently published, I counted six games that won’t be available through Bally Sports because they’re on national "cable" channels that require separate paid access (FS1 & ESPN) and four more that are "free" but still won’t be through BS (two each on ABC and Twitter), leaving only 24 games provided by BS. These non-BS games tend to be the marquee matchups (e.g., Atlanta United, LAFC, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and Portland Timbers), lowering the value of the BS service.
Because these other games are distributed throughout the season, there’s no easy way to jump back and forth between BS and whatever other service will give you FS1 and ESPN (which, for example, are offered in separate bundles in Sling, and together in more expensive bundles on other services). Oddly, all three games in June will be on national channels, making for at least one month in which you could temporarily cancel BS, but jumping around like that creates a cognitive toll on fans. And this doesn’t even address the problem that broadcast decisions can change, so suddenly a game that should have been on BS gets bumped to a "premier" channel (like a suddenly momentous late-season matchup), leaving people to scramble for how to get that game at the last minute.
So what would be the minimum baseline cost to access the entire SKC regular season through streaming?
- Seven months BS (not counting June when all three games are national): ~$20/mo x 7 = $140 (assuming you can pick up and drop BS at will like other services, not clear if that’ll be the case)
- Four separate months of Sling Blue (FS1: February vs. Atlanta, June vs. Nashville, August vs. Portland, October vs. Seattle): $35 × 4 = $140
- Two separate months of Sling Orange (ESPN: April vs. LAFC and July vs. Minnesota): $35 × 2 = $70
Notice that none of the national games are within a month of one another on the same channel, meaning you can’t piggyback a Sling subscription; you’ll be paying $35 to watch each of those games.
Total cost for 30 games (not counting two each "free" on ABC and Twitter): $350 / 30 = ~$12/game. In a vacuum, $12/game is an interesting price; in the same range as some movie tickets and arguably a better value for a one-time live event, though well below the $4 it costs to stream a movie on Amazon. But this doesn’t count the cognitive cost of constantly managing these subscriptions to keep the financial cost down; even a single lapse in attention could cost you an extra $35 if you forget to juggle your Sling subscriptions every month.
The most obvious alternative here, though technically a violation of service agreements, is to subscribe to ESPN+ and use a VPN to get around the local IP-address-based blackouts. A quick online search revealed standalone VPNs quoted at around $10-12/mo. When added to $7/mo for ESPN+, that route is arguably no cheaper than BS, while having its own flavor of fussiness (for example, VPNs are harder to apply to a Roku than a laptop).
For fans outside the blackout zone, it's a no-brainer: subbing ESPN+ for BS lowers the 7-month cost to $49 from $140. But when you add in the baseline Sling needed for the marque games, the full-season per-game cost doesn't actually change much (7 x $7 = $49, + $140 + $70 = $259 / 30 = ~ $9/game for ESPN+ rather than $12/game for BS). It's the marque national games that really drive up the per-game price for fans, despite all the fuss about the "expensive" BS service. 24 games on BS will cost you the same as four games on FS1.
Obviously the wild card here is how much you care about the other features on either service (Royals on BS vs. Bundesliga, MLS Next Pro [maybe], etc. on ESPN+). Also, VPNs can be folded into other services; one is provided through our antivirus package for no meaningful extra cost.
This is a broader issue that’s rarely discussed when the media report on TV deals. To actually watch all of SKC’s season requires multiple overlapping or carefully managed TV subscriptions, which raises the financial, cognitive, and practical cost of following the team to an obnoxious level. And since playoffs are always on national channels (but mostly not over-the-air), this creates an additional cost since this often requires subscribing to a different expensive service for each playoff game (a VPN won’t get you FS1 or ESPN) over a short time period. This fragmentation is a real problem for drawing fans, because if you have to scramble to figure out which service you need to watch this week’s playoff game, some are going to get pissed off and/or lose some level of interest.
The overall structure is still based on the dying assumption that we all have a cable bundle that naturally includes ESPN, FS1, and other subscriber national channels, and as that becomes less true, people lose access to games. So there’s a certain argument that the real gouge job isn’t coming from BS, it’s coming from the league placing lots of marquee games on national channels that are far more expensive to access (on a per-game basis) than normal games on BS. In effect, this punishes fans of "good" teams like SKC, since I doubt many Cincinnati games will end up on FS1 or ESPN.
So whether or not you decide to sign up for the new BS service, you'd better have a plan for accessing those six marquee games, because those are where the gouging really occurs.