Q. I have the live version of Hulu and they just dropped my Fox regional sports channel. I’m okay with that now because the seasons are over, but will the channel come back when the teams come back? — Teresa, Mesa, Arizona. 

Teresa, Hulu last week lost the 21 Fox-named regional sports networks, Marquee Sports and Yes Network when it could not reach a new carriage agreement with their owner, Sinclair Broadcasting. The blackout comes after YouTube TV lost the channels last month in a separate fee fight with Sinclair. (You can see the complete list below.)

In addition, live streamers FuboTV and Sling TV lost the channels previously this year. The only live streaming service that now carries them is AT&T TV Now (and its sister service, AT&T TV.)

The series of departures has some industry observers wondering if any regional sports channel can survive in the coming months using the same economic model. Pay TV operators, including streamers, are aggressively cutting programming costs to offset the loss of subscriber revenue due to cord-cutting. The RSN, which is largely a niche offering for sports fans, has become collateral damage.

Dish has also jettisoned regional sports channels, saying their carriage fees far exceed viewer interest. However, most large satellite and cable operators are still carrying them, allowing companies like Sinclair to continue for now.

But for Sinclair’s RSNs to thrive, not just survive, they will need the live streaming audience as well. And the hope of many live streaming subscribers, and Sinclair, is that Hulu, YouTube TV, and perhaps Fubo and Sling, will agree to carry them when the 2021 NBA and NHL seasons are expected to start in December/January. (The Sinclair RSNs have the rights to NBA, NHL and MLB games in their respective regions.)

I think it’s possible that Hulu, YouTube TV and FuboTV will sign new carriage agreements then. All three have been bullish on sports, incorporating them prominently in marketing campaigns. (Sling TV is another story; it’s owned by Dish which, as just noted, is not a supporter of the RSN.)

But I wouldn’t assume they will turn on the switch just because the live games are back. The live streaming services operate on thin profit margins. Because their subscription fees are less than cable or satellite, they have even greater pressure to limit their programming acquisition costs. If they pay too much for programming, they will begin to lose money. And while we don’t know exactly how much Sinclair is charging them, it’s more than the average niche channel.

Plus, there is less pressure now to carry them because most of their live streaming rivals don’t carry them. Hulu, for instance, doesn’t have to fear that a sports fan will switch to YouTube TV because the latter doesn’t have the Sinclair RSN, either. Nor does Fubo or Sling. It’s called strength in numbers.

So if I had to predict now, I would say that Hulu, YouTube TV, and FuboTV will not bring Sinclair’s RSNs back when the new NBA and NHL seasons begin. It’s more likely you’ll see some deals later in 2021 as we get closer to the start of the 2021 MLB season in April. By waiting until then, the streamers can save a little extra in programming fees.

Teresa, hope that makes sense. Happy viewing, and stay safe!

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— Phillip Swann

Editor’s Note: The Sinclair RSNs are as listed:
FOX Sports Arizona, FOX Sports Ohio, Sports Time Ohio, FOX Sports Detroit, FOX Sports Wisconsin, FOX Sports North, FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports Indiana, FOX Sports Tennessee, FOX Sports Carolinas, FOX Sports Southeast, FOX Sports South, FOX Sports Florida, FOX Sports Sun, FOX Sports New Orleans, FOX Sports Oklahoma, FOX Sports Southwest and FOX Sports San Diego, Fox Sports West and Fox Sports Prime Ticket, YES Network, and Marquee.