MLB Attendance Hits 15 Year Low but Fans Still Watching on TV

MLB2

Major League Baseball attendance declined 4.1% in 2018 (from 30,042/game to 28,830/game), with fewer than 70 million people (69,625,244) visiting league parks for the first time since 2003; it was the MLB’s 5th attendance decline in the last 6 seasons. 17 clubs experienced a YoY regression, with the Marlins (-771,910 fans) and Blue Jays (-878,605 fans) reporting the largest drop-offs; it must be noted that those clubs altered the way they calculated gate receipts prior to the ’18 season.

While MLB experienced a decline in fans at the ballpark, television viewership remains strong; Nielsen reported that between March 29th (earliest opening day ever) and September 30th (final day of regular season) the league’s 29 RSNs (Toronto not included) saw ratings rise +2% YoY. MLB games remain the most watched programming in primetime on cable television in 28 of 29 U.S. markets (Miami is the exception) and 12 RSNs carrying MLB teams are tops in their market in primetime, amongst all programmers.

Howie Long-Short: MLB blamed the attendance decline on the “historically bad weather” in April (102 games were played under 50 degrees), but they should have blamed it on the Marlins and Blue Jays accounting methods; 54% of the league’s total decline can be attributed to those 2 clubs.

Of the 12 RSNs that rank first in primetime within their market, 6 are owned by Fox Sports (Cardinals, Indians, Brewers, Yankees, Royals and Diamondbacks) and will be sold. It’s been reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBGI), YouTube (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Blackstone Group (BX), CVC Capital Partners and Apollo Global Management (APO) have all expressed interest in acquiring the block (22) of RSNs. Bloomberg has estimated that the assets could command upwards of $20 billion.

Advertisers value sports properties because a) they’re live (so you can’t fast-forward through commercials) and b) viewership consumption is greater for sporting events than it is for entertainment programming. In fact, the average MLB club has fans tuned in longer than the top 10 primetime television shows combined in their respective markets.

Fan Marino: The St. Louis Cardinals lead the league with an 8.05 rating on Fox Sports Midwest. On the other end of the spectrum, the Chicago White Sox were the only club to post a Nielsen rating under 1 (.68); a figure that indicates fewer than 1% of the total TV households in the Chicago market are tuning in to watch the South Siders on FSN Chicago. The Atlanta Braves experienced the league’s greatest YoY rise, with viewership climbing 79% in 2018 (to a 3.46 rating); a trip to the postseason following 3 straight years of 90+ losses explains the renewed enthusiasm.

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Comcast Preparing to Divest 22 Fox RSNs, To Submit 2nd All-Cash Bid by July 27th  

Comcast

Comcast (CMCSA) is reportedly lining up buyers for 21st Century Fox’s (FOXA) regional sports networks to alleviate anti-trust concerns, as it prepares a bid that would be favorable to The Walt Disney Company’s (DIS) $71 billion dollar offer (cash and stock) for FOXA film & TV assets. CMCSA is open to divesting all 22 RSNs, but believes just 8 overlap with the existing Comcast sports footprint. Reuters is reporting that the company has held conversations with publicly-traded buyout firms Apollo Global Management (APO) and Blackstone Group (BX). Just 2 weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice approved DIS’ bid after reaching a settlement with the mouse house to rid itself of the regional sports networks.

Howie Long-Short: It’s been assumed that the RSNs will fetch $20 billion+ (Comcast’s first bid placed a $24 billion valuation on them), so selling them off will help Comcast coffers as the company prepares to submit a 2nd all-cash bid (no dollar amounts given). FOXA shareholders are scheduled to vote on the DIS bid on July 27th, Comcast will submit their bid prior.

Rumors of P.E. firms taking down the RSNs is relatively surprising as most of the discussions surrounding potential landing spots having focused on telecom and media companies. Everyone from Amazon (AMZN) and YouTube (GOOGL) to AT&T (T) and Dish Network (DISH) has been mentioned.

I asked T.K. Gore, sports media consultant, advisor and professor, for his thoughts on who lands the RSNs?

T.K.: The RSN world is a tricky business and experience — coupled with deep pockets — matters. Look for groups like Liberty Media and AT&T to get involved given their experiences.

MSG is among the companies that has been associated with having interest in the regional networks. James Dolan has said that he’d be interested in acquiring the assets “at the right price”, noting they’re highly profitable now but a “slow, declining revenue stream.”

Fan Marino: The 22 RSNs collectively control exclusive broadcast rights to 44 NFL, NBA, MLB & NHL franchises, including teams in Detroit, Southern California, Dallas, Cleveland and Miami. The YES Network is the most valuable of the lot, worth an estimated $4 billion; the Yankees are likely to re-acquire that network.

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