Ahead of Spring Training YouTube TV drops MLB Network in carriage dispute

YouTube TV this week dropped the MLB Network from its virtual MVPD channel lineup, as the companies were unable to reach terms for a new carriage agreement following months of negotiations.

The timing is particularly unfortunate as Major League Baseball’s Spring Training is scheduled to begin February 24. The loss of key baseball programming for YouTube TV comes as competition for sports fans is heating up among streamers, while the dispute hits MLB as the league appears poised for its own woes stemming from an expected Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing for Sinclair’s embattled Diamond Sports Group subsidiary and regional sports networks – which are home to 14 MLB teams.

Contacted by Fierce, a YouTube TV spokesperson said the company has “held good faith negotiations with MLB for several months” to renew a deal to continue carriage.

“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were unable to reach a new agreement before our existing one expired. As of January 31, 2023, the MLB Network is no longer available on YouTube TV,” the person continued, adding that viewers can still watch select national MLB games via YouTube TV through the league’s coverage on Fox, ESPN and TBS.

There is still potential that the network will rejoin YouTube TV as the companies continue to work to reach a deal.

“MLB is a long-standing and important partner to YouTube, so we'll continue our conversations with them,” the YouTube TV spokesperson stated.

YouTube TV in July disclosed surpassing the 5 million user mark, making it the largest vMVPD in the U.S. and a leading pay TV provider, with a significant audience size.

While YouTube TV’s statement didn’t make any mention of the network increasing rates, it appears the vMVPD wasn’t willing to pony up whatever terms MLB Network had been seeking.

Reached by Fierce for comment, MLB Network pointed to YouTube TV as being “unwilling to negotiate a fair carriage agreement.”

“MLB Network has offered terms consistent with what close to 300 other U.S. providers have agreed to for distribution,” MLB Network stated.

The network went on to say it remains widely available throughout the U.S., including on traditional MVPDs Altice (Optimum), AT&T U-Verse, Charter’s Spectrum, Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, Dish, Verizon Fios. The network is also carried by YouTube TV competitors in the live streaming TV space including DirecTV Stream, Fubo TV and Dish’s Sling TV.

Still, MLB Network isn’t walking away from the table just yet either.

“With the great demand and value for live baseball content, Major League Baseball’s commitment to MLB Network now and in the future is stronger than ever before, and we remain open and committed to reaching an agreement with YouTube TV as soon as possible,” MLB Network stated.

This year the MLB Network will air more than 250 live regular season and Spring Training games, as well as specials, daily studio shows and live on-site coverage from the World Baseball Classic, MLB London Series, All-Star Game and World Series.

In world of live sports YouTube TV made a major move just ahead of the New Year, nabbing rights to the NFL’s Sunday Ticket Package. Under the deal all out-of-market Sunday afternoon games will be exclusively available in the U.S. as an add-on package for YouTube TV subscribers as well as a standalone a la carte  option through YouTube Primetime Channels.

However, with sports representing one of TVs major audience draws, prices for rights have continued to rise. Financial details weren’t disclosed, but reports pegged YouTube as paying an average annual price of roughly $2 billion for seven years for the Sunday Ticket package. In a January 6 note to investors, analysts at MoffettNathanson said it was widely understood that former Sunday Ticket holder DirecTV had been losing money on the rights package, with the firm estimating YouTube would need to draw in 6 million Sunday Ticket subscribers to just break even.

Along with frustration at an increasingly fragmented sports viewing ecosystem, rising programming costs that lead to impasses with distributors have also sometimes left fans leave in the lurch. Last year millions of Dish TV and Sling TV subscribers temporarily lost Disney-owned networks amid a carriage dispute. That disagreement over rate increases included ESPN, which was abruptly dropped from the systems over a weekend during which college football games and the NFL season were underway. The companies ultimately reached an interim deal a few days later.  

While carriage disputes aren’t uncommon, vMVPDs are also looking to sports programming to stand out from the crowd. As reported by NextTV, Dish’s Sling TV recently added ABC stations in eight major cities, bringing NBA Finals to subscribers, alongside a price bump. Fubo TV in December added 19 Bally Sports RSNs (which as previously mentioned appear headed for a bankruptcy restructuring with owner Diamond Sports Group) along with a regional sports fee that increased monthly prices for nearly all subscribers.