Hornets games are again unavailable on TV to many fans in Charlotte

·6 min read

Jim Grant doesn’t think he’s asking for much.

Two years ago, the 57-year-old Charlotte resident had it with the escalating costs associated with cable television and severed ties with his rising bill. He elected to turn to something that was steadily gaining popularity and still is: streaming TV services.

But with Bally Sports Southeast, the television partner of the Hornets, unavailable on most of the streaming platforms the bulk of the past two seasons, it’s been impossible for Grant to tune in and watch. LaMelo Ball’s spectacular passes, Miles Bridges’ highlight reel dunks and Terry Rozier’s smooth jumper are not things he’s able to see. At least not on the platform he pays for. And that’s isn’t changing any time soon.

Once again, Bally Sports Southeast is the exclusive regional network of the Hornets for 2021-22, an agreement that’s been in place since 2014-15. It will televise all 82 regular-season games and is available on Spectrum, DirecTV and AT&T U-verse. With packages that carry the channel on cable and satellite continuously increasing in price — or not even being offered, as in the case with DISH Network — consumers like Grant have decided to cut the cord. The only games he can actually view in the comfort of his own home are the four scheduled to also be televised on ESPN.

“It bothers me a lot,” Grant said Monday. “I’m sitting here thinking in order to watch the Hornets it’s going to cost me an extra 50 bucks a month to get Spectrum. And really, the only thing I’m missing is the Hornets. So it bugs me a lot. That’s $600 a year to watch the Hornets on TV and I’m just not going to do it.”

Grant’s problem is similar to thousands of others in the Carolinas and nationwide. Live television streaming platforms like YouTube TV, Sling, Hulu Live TV and FuboTV no longer carry Bally regional sports networks, leaving scores of fans out in the proverbial cold. Lapsed contracts with Sinclair Broadcast Group, the company that acquired Fox’s regional networks in 2019 prior to last year’s name change, were not renewed.

The only place Bally Sports game telecasts can be streamed live is at BallySports.com and on the Bally Sports app, which can be downloaded on Android, Apple and Windows devices. A cable or satellite account log-in is still necessary to watch. Those who have DirecTV Stream service, known previously as AT&T NOW, can stream the network, but must opt-in for the Choice package to receive Bally.

Even some who pay for the NBA League Pass package subscriptions voice frustration with coverage-area blackout rules affecting their ability to watch Hornets’ games. A few attempt to circumvent the system and beat local blackouts using a VPN service similar to Express VPN or NORDVPN, which allows them to hide their exact location and stream the games.

Dwindling options means fewer choices for customers and the ramifications are having a trickle-down effect that is slowly chipping away at the league’s overall bottom line.

Answering a question during his season-opening press conference Monday about a similar issue happening in Denver, NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the availability of the league’s product in many of its markets needs to improve. Or else the multi-billion entity may have a continuous exodus of paying customers like Grant.

“We’re very focused on reshaping the model in terms of the way our games are distributed now so that even if games are on cable or satellite in a local market, that fans who don’t choose to subscribe to a larger bundle aren’t disenfranchised from the league,” Silver said. “And the numbers are particularly dramatic for our younger fans, who generally either are not subscribing to cable or satellite, or to the extent they are, are largely using it to watch other platforms. Using it as a broadband provider.”

Silver continued: “You know, it’s a really tough period right now because this industry is going through a transition. There’s no question about it. I think that we have to be mindful of not taking our fans for granted, and that at some point if our product becomes unavailable to them, they’re going to look for alternative ways to entertain themselves.”

Hornets president/vice chairman Fred Whitfield said the team is pleased overall with the relationship it has built with Bally’s dating to its days as Fox Sports. He noted the Hornets’ broadcasts were available in less than a million households prior to both sides getting together, and that number now hovers around 4 million.

Still, he agrees there is a need for a further reach in distribution somehow.

“They’ve just been absolute great partners along the way,” Whitfield said. “Now, the whole TV industry is sort of going through a transformation and I’m confident that Bally’s will be on the cutting edge, and on the forefront of trying to figure out exactly how to have more people have access to our games. That’s their goal, that’s our goal. How we get there, we are going to obviously leave it to them to lead the way. But we are going to be a ready, willing and able partner to try to have as many people as possible watch our games.”

The Hornets aren’t alone. Or unique.

Denver’s carriage squabble with Altitude — owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the same company that owns the Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche — has been on the league’s radar for a while. The regional network isn’t offered on the city’s largest cable provider, Comcast, and doesn’t have an agreement with Colorado-based DISH. It’s DirecTV or nothing to view a Nuggets game on TV.

“I think that in some ways, Denver has been the canary in the mine,” Silver said, “because you’re seeing now that this issue is popping up in other markets in the country. Maybe not in such an extreme way, but you have other teams that are still continuing to be distributed through traditional means, but large segments of their fans aren’t able to get the games. Coming up with that in-market solution is at the top of our agenda right now.”

They risk alienating people like Grant even more if it’s not.

“I feel like I’m a little bit on strike, right?” Grant said. “Because they’ve got to come around. They’re losing audience because I’m frustrated. But I feel like time’s on my side because if they are just using cable to get the Hornets’ television out … they are a hot, young product and they are selling a hot, young product to the AARP right now because the young people are streaming.”

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