FORT MYERS, Fla. — When the Twins take the field Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee to open the 2021 season, there’s a large segment of fans — likely around 25%, though perhaps more — who won’t be unable to tune in.
The Twins and their fans find themselves in the middle of a carriage dispute between Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the television home of the Twins, FOX Sports North — soon to be Bally Sports North — and major streaming services like YouTube TV and Hulu. As a result, when Minnesota begins defense of its back-to-back American League Central championships, some of its most loyal fans will not be watching.
“We’re concerned about it. We continue to have regular conversations with Sinclair leadership, both locally and nationally, as does Major League Baseball,” Twins president and CEO Dave St. Peter said. “This isn’t just in Minnesota. This is going on across the country. It’s an issue for MLB. It’s certainly an issue for the NHL and the National Basketball Association. It’s not just baseball.”
But the fact that it’s happening to fans around the country doesn’t make it any less frustrating for cord-cutting Minnesotans.
It’s an issue for the Twins, too, who want their games to be as accessible as possible. Not having them as an option to those who wish to watch them via streaming services — many of whom tend to be younger, which is a demographic Major League Baseball has a well-documented problem keeping engaged — certainly doesn’t help interest.
“We fully recognize where streaming is going,” St. Peter said. “It will continue to increase. And it’s incumbent, I think, upon leagues, it’s incumbent upon teams, and it’s certainly going to be incumbent upon broadcasters to ensure that they are working toward distribution deals that ensure that all the fans receive these games.”
‘All of a sudden, it's gone’
At the core of the issue is money, of course, and which carriers are willing to pay Sinclair’s prices. But when the net result is millions of people across the country are unable to watch their favorite teams, the specifics of the carriage dispute wind up being unimportant to many.
“I think all of them have their portion of blame, and I’m sure there’s financial reasons, but I haven’t burrowed down that much to read specifically,” said Mark Davidson, a Twins fan from Bloomington. “I just know I can’t watch them, that’s all.”
It wasn’t always like that. When his son first installed YouTube TV for him a few years back, Davidson was delighted to finally be able to watch Twins and Gophers games. After all, he had never been a cable guy.
And then, on Oct. 1, 2020, YouTube TV stopped carrying FOX regional sports networks. Hulu followed suit shortly after. Sling TV and Fubo TV had already done so. Dish Network also does not have FSN.
“It was just like a given. You just assumed this would go on forever,” Davidson said. “… You’re like, ‘Ah, they’ll work it out.’ If I’ve got to pay a few more bucks, I don’t know how it would work, I’ll do that. But then all of a sudden, it’s gone.”
Derek Ryan, a Twins and Wild fan from White Bear Lake, shares that frustration. He used to have DirecTV, and the price kept rising, eventually nearing $200 a month. Ryan and his family only watched a few limited channels to begin with, FOX Sports North being one of them.
When he made the switch and decided to explore a streaming option, finding one that included FSN was a big factor in his decision. Shortly after YouTube TV dropped the station, he figured, like Davidson, that it would come back soon. AT&T TV was his only option for streaming, and for Ryan, that wasn’t an option because of personal preference.
“I may be sticking my foot in the sand and saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ ” Ryan said. “So that’s kind of why I’ve been stuck.”
FOX Sports North isn’t gone for all Twins fans. Those with traditional cable and DirecTV still have access to FSN. As do subscribers to AT&T TV, the only streaming service still carrying the FOX regional sports channels. The lowest-priced package that includes them costs $84.99 a month, plus taxes — cheaper than cable but more expensive than other streaming options.
“The business is in a bit of a transition, and it’s created, I think, some pretty choppy waters in terms of a growing number of fans may be feeling as though they don’t have access to games,” said the Twins’ St. Peter. “The key point I’d like to make is those fans still do have a choice. If they want to get the games, they can. … They have every right to make the choice that they think is best for them and their family. Some of those people are going to make the choice to come back to a service that has the games, others will not.”
Mike Dimond, the senior vice president and general manager of FOX Sports North and FOX Sports Wisconsin, said he was unable to share how many fans were affected due to confidentiality with carriers, but certainly he hears — and shares — the frustration.
“We are still widely distributed,” Dimond said. “I guess (what) I would say on that is, look, we’re as frustrated as fans are. It’s not like we don’t want to have these games distributed.”
And while there still technically is a choice, some fans say it doesn’t really feel that way.
“Unless you have cable or DirecTV, a pretty expensive page that is $150-plus a month, you can’t get it, which most people financially, especially the past year, have had to make that choice,” Ryan said. “Like I’m not going to do that, and overall, it just doesn’t make sense if you only want it for the one channel. So you’re going to find your most cost-effective option.”
For now, Ryan is getting his sports fill by tuning in on the radio, as is Ron Schmitz, a Twins fan from Waconia. Like Davidson, Schmitz’s son helped his parents shift away from cable after inquiring about their cable bill.
Schmitz ended up with YouTube TV, an option he said provided him with a much lower bill and more flexibility. He wouldn’t mind spending some extra money to view his favorite baseball team, but he doesn’t see going back to cable as a choice for him and is resigned to a new fate for now.
“I grew up in the ‘60s in Iowa listening to the Twins on the radio, so it’s not the end of the world,” Schmitz said. “But it kind of sucks because we went through a lot of crappy baseball for a few years, and now that they’re good again, it’s kind of frustrating.”