The ongoing battle between regional sports networks and pay-TV operators has flared up once again, as the MSG Networks, home to the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, have gone dark in Comcast cable systems across New Jersey and Connecticut.
The MSG and MSG+ channels disappeared from the Comcast lineup shortly after midnight Friday, as the two sides failed to come to terms on a new carriage deal. As a result, some 566,000 Comcast subs in 24 towns are no longer able to tune in for MSG’s coverage of the local NBA and NHL franchises.
At the heart of the dispute between the carrier and the programmer is MSG’s affiliate fee. According to Kagan/S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates, MSG in 2019 charged operators an average rate of $4.65 per sub per month to carry the flagship channel’s signal, a toll that’s been projected to reach $5.42 by next year. (For what it’s worth, Kagan eyeballed the 2022 fee for Comcast’s NBC Sports Philadelphia at $5.53 per sub per month.)
In a statement issued earlier this morning, MSG charged the RSN-owning Comcast with trying to have it both ways. “Right when fans are looking forward to the start of the NBA and NHL seasons, Comcast dropped MSG Networks to try to force us to accept terms they’d never agree to for their own regional sports networks, including SNY in New York,” an MSG rep said. “They rejected proposals that are consistent with their current deal and deals we have with other major providers, as well as our offer to keep our programming on air under existing terms so we could continue to work on a longer-term agreement.”
Comcast and MSG were not in active discussions when the deadline passed, and there is little evidence to suggest that negotiations are imminent. The puck drops on the NHL season Oct. 12, while the 2021-22 NBA campaign is set to tip off exactly one week later.
This marks MSG’s first major carriage clash in nearly a decade. Back in 2012, in the very early days of the Linsanity phenomenon, MSG was dark in Time Warner Cable homes for 48 days before a resolution was reached. Having been petitioned by Knicks fans who were incensed that they were being denied the opportunity to watch new star Jeremy Lin, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was said to have used his influence to bring the two sides back to the table.
Lin and Cuomo are gone now, and RSN blackouts these days are about as common as the ones that take place in Midtown Manhattan every year on March 17. Sinclair’s Bally Sports RSNs have been dark in Dish Network homes since July 2019, and the same carrier bumped MASN and the NBC Sports RSNs in April. And just hours before MSG went dark in Comcast homes, four AT&T SportsNet and Root Sports RSNs were excised from the Dish roster.
Comcast is also in a rights-fee stare-down with Google’s YouTubeTV—one that revolves around the RSNs, as well as the NBC broadcast network and a number of national cable channels—although the two sides have agreed to a brief extension while talks continue.
Comcast faced a similar local sports impasse with YES Network at the end of 2015, and that situation wasn’t resolved until just before the 2017 MLB season got underway. Earlier this year, Kagan named Comcast one of the industry’s “most RSN-friendly” operators, noting that the cable giant carried 40 of the 48 local sports nets that are available within the markets it services.
“We don’t believe that our customers should have to pay the millions of dollars in fees that MSG is demanding for some of the most expensive sports content in the country with extremely low viewership in our markets,” Comcast said in a statement released Friday. “According to our data, customer viewership of the MSG networks is virtually non-existent. Almost 95% of all customers who received MSG over the past year did not watch more than 10 of the approximately 240 games it broadcast. Additionally, up to 80% of customers didn’t watch any MSG content at all each month in that timeframe.”
Should the stalemate continue throughout the NBA season—and again, no formal negotiations are in the works—Comcast subs will miss dozens of regular-season Knicks games. The saving grace for those impacted subscribers is that New York’s team is once again a top draw, which translates to a healthy national TV schedule. Between the Oct. 20 opener against the Celtics and a Christmas Day battle with the Hawks, the Knicks are set to appear in no fewer than seven coast-to-coast TV windows—three on ESPN and four on TNT.