THOMA COLUMN | Plenty of static ahead for Twins fans

Edward Thoma, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·3 min read

Mar. 29—Twins fans have become accustomed to watching the team's telecasts on Fox Sports North.

But when Kenta Maeda throws the first official pitch of the Twins 2021 season on Thursday, FSN won't officially exist. It will have been rebranded as Bally Sports North.

And a lot of viewers won't have access to it.

The rebranding is rooted in the most recent corporate dismemberment of what was once News Corp. The 19 regional sports networks under the Fox Sports banner wound up in the hands of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which last year sold the naming rights to the RSNs to Bally, a casino giant.

On Wednesday, FSN officially becomes BSN.

Under Sinclair's ownership, the former Fox RSNs have steadily dropped off the various streaming services that carried them. I'm sufficiently outdated that streaming is just a vague concept to me, but reports in recent weeks say that the Minnesota teams carried by the local RSN have lost between one-third or one-fourth of their viewers in the process.

I'm also old enough that I grew up in an era in which few games were televised. I followed the games via radio, and if necessary, I am perfectly willing to return to that era.

But there are younger generations for which it's video or nothing, and the loss of the cord-cutting audience is an obvious worry for the Twins and other teams.

There's also nothing they can really do about it; contracts struck with the previous ownership carry over to the new owner.

While the Twins management is primarily concerned with a television audience dwindling because of the decisions made by their carrier, I am primarily concerned with the inevitable contamination of the broadcasts themselves by gambling interests.

I wrote about this years ago and do not wish to revisit it in detail, but one of my best high school friends wrecked his life in Minnesota's casinos. He wound up committing suicide.

I firmly believe Minnesota would be better off if gambling were less accessible. I also realize that I am in the minority on that.

It is no accident that a casino company is the brand Sinclair sought for the networks. Minnesota has yet to legalize sports betting, but almost half have, including two states into which BSN has a presence (Iowa and South Dakota, the latter of which has yet to set up its rules). Sinclair's interest in the RSNs was based on tapping into this previously illicit cash stream.

We should expect the broadcasts — especially if and when Minnesota legalizes sports betting — to increasingly focus on wagering, on odds, on the betting "products" offered by its namesake casino company. Some envision a day when one can wager online in real time through the broadcasts.

There was a time when professional sports leagues would recoil from such a prospect. Today, the leagues eagerly seek this embrace; remember, major league managers must now submit their lineups to the commissioners office to transmission to the oddsmakers before they can even post them in the clubhouse.

Sinclair may well calculate that a smaller audience can be more profitable if it is going to spend extra money betting. I can't see how that benefits anybody but the house.

Edward Thoma is at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. Twitter: @bboutsider.