Q. The NBA is starting and I can’t watch the (Phoenix) Suns because I have the live Hulu and they got rid of the Fox sports channel that carries them. Is there any chance they will come back before many games are played? — Teresa, Mesa, Arizona. 

Teresa, Hulu in late October 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 came after YouTube TV lost the channels in September in a separate fee fight with Sinclair. (You can see the complete list of channels 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.)

This NBA’s return this week has many customers, and industry analysts, wondering if the channels will return to the four live streaming services. The Sinclair RSNs have the rights to NBA, NHL and MLB games in their respective regions. For instance, Fox Sports Sun tonight will air the Miami Heat-Orlando Magic game in Florida. If you have Sling, Fubo, YouTube TV or Hulu Live, you won’t be able to watch it.

But for the live streaming services, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch and bringing back the channels now when sports fans arguably want them the most. Pay TV operators, including streamers, are aggressively cutting programming costs to offset the loss of subscriber revenue due to cord-cutting. In addition, programming acquisition costs continue to rise, creating more pressure on the operators to reduce spending. 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 now with the NBA underway and the NHL scheduled to drop puck on January 13.

I said here in October that the four streamers would stay on the sidelines when the NBA and NHL seasons began. And I’m going to stay with that prediction. The live streaming services operate on thin profit margins. Because their subscription fees are less than cable or satellite, they have even greater motivation 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.

I think it’s more likely you’ll see some deals later in 2021 when the NHL is playing and/or 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.

That said, if there is a Sinclair deal this week, I suspect it’s most likely to come from Fubo TV. The service has deeper pockets now thanks to a public offering of its stock, and it has emphasized sports since its launch in 2015. It’s quite possible that it will display its new found wealth by bringing back the Sinclair channels.

Last note: The four streamers have been tight-lipped about whether they will sign a new deal with Sinclair, offering pat statements on social media sites that they are hopeful of deal at some point. The TV Answer Man will continue to monitor this situation, and report back here if and when anything changes.

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.