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Reds games broadcasts return Saturday amid Bally Sports' financial uncertainties

John Kiesewetter
The Reds have trained in Goodyear, Ariz., since 2010.

Bally Sports Ohio plans to air seven spring Reds games while its parent company deals with revenue shortfalls due to cable TV cord-cutting.

Play ball! Bally Sports Ohio — whose owner is facing financial uncertainties — and Reds flagship WLW-AM will bring the Reds spring training opener 4 p.m. Saturday against the Cleveland Guardians in Goodyear, Ariz.

The Cactus League starts play 10 days after Diamond Sports Group LLC, the Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary which owns the Bally Sports regional sports networks, announced it was taking a 30-day "grace period" on its $140-million cash interest payments due on $8 billion of debtFeb. 15.

Diamond Sports Group's revenues, which have declined due to cable TV cord-cutting, has prompted many stories speculating the company could be heading into bankruptcy.

Forbes has reported that Diamond Sports Group "has enough cash to sustain (rights fees) payments for the next year, according to people with knowledge of the financials." However, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has promised to keep MLB games on TV if Diamond Sports Group can't do them.

After the spring opener, Bally Sports Ohio will telecast the Rangers at Reds 3 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27; the Reds vs. Oakland in Las Vegas 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 4-5; the Reds at Cubs 3 p.m. Thursday, March 9; the Angels at Reds 4 p.m. Monday, March 20; and Padres at Reds 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 22.

Bally Sports Ohio is expected to televise most of the Reds regular season games — as usual — starting with the Opening Day against the Pirates from Great American Ball Park on Thursday, March 30. Opening Day again will be simulcast on Sinclair's WKRC-TV (Channel 12) at 4:10 p.m., says Jon Lawhead, a Sinclair Broadcast Group regional manager and WKRC-TV general manager.

Leading up to Opening Day, most — but not all — of the 31 spring Reds games will air on iHeartRadio's WLW-AM or WSAI-AM. Four games won't be heard on radio: split-squad games on Friday, March 10 and on Sunday, March 26; and the two games in Las Vegas against the Oakland A's telecast by Bally Sports Ohio.

Also starting Saturday, MLB Network will telecast at least one live spring training gamefor 32 consecutive days — beginning with the Red Sox at Braves — and fill the channel with games virtually around the clock through March. MLB Network plans to carry three Reds games, all subject to blackouts: Saturday's opener with the Guardians; the tape-delayed Reds-Rangers game at 12:30 a.m. Thursday; and the Reds at Dodgers live at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28.

While Reds fans watch the spring games, they'll keep an eye on news about Diamond Sports Group LLC, the Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary which holds TV rights to 14 MLB clubs, including the Reds;16 National Basketball Association teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers; and 12 National Hockey League teams, including the Columbus Blue Jackets. It pays about $1.8-billion in annual rights fees, according to a Feb. 17 Forbes story.

Diamond Sports Group said on Feb. 15 it "expects that its business will continue as usual, and it will keep broadcasting quality live sports productions for fans while it addresses its balance sheet." The company is holding "ongoing discussions with creditors and other key stakeholders regarding potential alternatives … to best position Diamond Sports Group in the future."

Commissioner Manfred said after an owners meeting Feb. 9 in Florida that "I think you should assume that if Diamond doesn't broadcast, we'll be in a position to step in. Our goal would be to make games available not only within the traditional cable bundle but on the digital side, as well," he said, according to the Associated Press.

To enhance revenues, Bally Sports launched its new Bally Sports+ streaming service for its 19 regional sports networks last Sept. 26 — but without the Reds.

At the time, Bally Sports only had streaming rights for five of its 14 cable TV baseball teams (Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays). And Bally Sports didn't have a streaming deal with Major League Baseball for the 2023 season.

Leadership changes at Diamond Sports Group

Early Thursday, Diamond Sports Group announced a leadership shakeup with the hiring of two new executives, David DeVoe Jr. as chief operating and financial officer, and Eric Ratchman as president of distribution and business development.

DeVoe has been executive vice president at 21st Century Fox overseeing finance, corporate development and other global operations, and the chief financial officer for Fox Entertainment Group, TV Guide and News America Marketing. Ratchman has spent over 18 years in digital media, content and sports programming. He previously was Amazon's global head of business at IMDb TV (now Amazon Freevee) and worked at Disney and ESPN, including as senior vice president of global strategy and business development.

In January, MLB hired Billy Chambers as its new local media rights guru to "play an integral role in how we navigate the rapidly evolving local media landscapein the future," Manfred said in the Jan. 12 press release announcing the hiring of Chambers, who was the chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the old Fox Sports regional networks, now Sinclair's Bally Sports networks.

"He will work closely with the 30 clubs on the most effective means to distribute games to fans in local markets throughout the country," said an MLB press release.

Among the options MLB could consider is "a direct-to-consumer model via streaming. The league is considered the gold standard for sports streaming with the experience gained from hosting MLB.TV Premium, the league's out-of-market streaming service. The league's technology arm is so good that they spun off an entirely separate company that was sold to Disney and supports Disney+ and ESPN+," Forbes says.

"A potential upside for consumers" would be MLB lifting the local blackout policy,"which according to MLB is their No. 1 customer complaint," according to a Jan. 30 Forbes story.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.