This coming season is a pivotal one for the New Jersey Devils on the ice. After a wildly successful 2022-23 season, the team is now expected to contend for the greatest prize in sports. It is also a pivotal season for the New Jersey Devils off the ice. This is the final season under the team’s current contract with MSG Networks.
Way back in November 2004, MSG Networks locked up the New Jersey Devils to a 20-year contract extension. Yes, it happened during the NHL lockout that ended with the hard salary cap put in place today. This R. Thomas Umstead article in Multichannel News and this Andrew Marchand article in the NY Post touch on why it was made in the middle of the lockout. Cablevision, who owns MSG Networks (and Our Hated Rivals and the Knicks and the arena), was concerned about competition coming from a Comcast-Time Warner backed New York Mets channel (this would become Sportsnet New York or SNY). As such, they pushed to give the Devils a lucrative extension beyond the 2006-07 season to keep the Devils from changing channels. This nearly happened earlier when the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network (YES) came to be. Which would have been fitting given that the Devils were still under Puck Holdings, an affiliate of YankeesNets, in 2002. But that did not happen and Cablevision and MSG Networks did not want to lose the Devils to another starting network. This was also why MSG Networks made a similar extension with the New York Islanders, which lasts through the 2030-31 season. That is the backstory of how the Devils have been on MSG Networks for the last two decades. This is the final season of their current contract.
Much has changes since then. While there was a MSG cable channel in the New York metropolitan area, most Devils games were on an affiliate of Fox Sports: Fox Sports New York. This meant that if you, one of the People Who Matter, wanted to watch the Devils on TV, then you needed a cable package. One that often came alongside MSG, too. This did not give you full coverage of the Devils. A handful of games were kept to more local and niche channels like Metro Channel or Apple TV, which were not a part of all packages. If you had Comcast - who was and is a competitor of Cablevision - or DirecTV or another provider, then you may have also missed out. Part of what made this deal so appealing, especially to a much younger me, was that it meant all games would eventually be on FSNY.
As you may know, there is no more FSNY. They rebranded to MSG Plus in 2008. A brand that lasted until 2022 when they officially became MSG SportsNet, or MSGSN. It was still all in the Cablevision family. What with talent being shared across all three teams whether it be for shared telecasts or personnel working for the three different teams (example and most notably: The Maven). In 2017, MSG Networks secured live streaming rights for the two New York teams and the Devils. And this is the part that makes me wonder what the future will hold for future Devils broadcasts.
This deal is ending in what is an uncertain future for sports broadcasts on television. Most NHL teams, as well as NBA and MLB, are broadcasted on what are called regional sports networks. MSG Networks would be one. The biggest one was owned by Diamond Sports, which is a subsidiary of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. They became one of the biggest as they bought plenty of networks from Disney - and roughly $8 billion in debt. This became an albatross around Diamond’s proverbial neck and they filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. There are open questions as to what will happen to the teams aired on Bally Sports (which is owned by Diamond) and other RSNs. So much so that DirecTV, whom Diamond has to renew their deal with to keep things going, has openly expressed doubt for what Diamond will be able to do this Fall. Which is rather soon. While this does not directly impact the Devils, the larger landscape of sports broadcasts in America will be.
Part of why Diamond is suffering is part of the larger issue with television as a whole: not everyone watches TV anymore. It is now viable to “cut the cord” for cable and stream what you want. Granted, the halcyon days of doing so to save some money has seemingly passed. Streaming requires paying for an internet connection and then paying, usually monthly, to multiple platforms to provide the content you want. Depending on how many and how much, you can clear the cost of a cable bill with streaming. Still, with the ability to stream shows to your phone, tablet, or computer, as well as the convenience to watch shows at your own pace (binge or drip-feed), more and more would rather do that than pay for a cable box to flip on a channel. And so they are with most of the major networks having their own services.
Live sports has remained as a source of eyeballs and money for television, but even that is changing. After all, the people who can, want, and do watch movies and TV shows on streaming services also can, want, and do watch sports on them. In the world of sports, Major League Soccer made a bold decision to sign their broadcasting rights to Apple. The majority of their season is streaming-only through AppleTV. As a user (thanks to being a season ticket holder of the Red Bulls), I can confirm that the picture quality and broadcast absolutely works well with streaming. Live sports can and does work. My old ways miss the ability to just sit on a couch or chair, hit a few buttons, and watch the Red Bulls gegenpress like 2012 Ryan Carter inspired them. But it is not that much different from sitting at a computer and hitting a few more to get there. However, this is not about ease of use, but the way things are heading. This will undoubtedly impact any future negotiations of broadcasting contracts for teams, such as the New Jersey Devils.
I think MSG has prepared for this. Again, they secured digital streaming rights as far back as 2017. You can use the MSG GO app to watch MSG telecasts on mobile devices as they happen. The MSG Networks also announced a streaming service earlier this year, just for Devils, Knicks, and Our Hated Rivals, called MSG+ (yes, really). Whether that will work will depend on whether the fans are willing to cough up $30 per month just to stream these games or $10 for a single game. And that those fans are local since, per the linked article, MSG+ will only be available in the area where MSG Networks are already carried. I legitimately do not understand this launch or that decision. In an era of streaming, local blackouts or local exclusivity does more harm than good and increases piracy, further proving Gabe Newell right. Again, “cutting the cord” is not necessarily a means to save money anymore. However, that very well could be the future of how we, the People Who Matter, will watch Devils games outside of the arena.
This will have to be something for the team to consider as negotiations begin (or continue behind the scenes) for a new deal. Whether that is with MSG Networks or someone else (SNY? YES?), the team should at least keep in mind how the People Who Matter will be able to watch their games. It is hard to convince people to spend money on tickets if it is hard for people to even see what the team is playing outside of the arena. Or even to see what hockey even is. It was not an accident that the short article from the NY Post about the 20-year extension with MSG Networks brought up the issue with Metro Digital and Lou confirmed that the matter was taken care of. Outreach matters.
Of course, what matters most is money. A big reason why the Devils made the deal they did in 2004 was because Cablevision and MSG Networks made a very lucrative offer to keep the team from going elsewhere. Something that almost happened two years prior and something that could have still happened back then. While YES and SNY are not new networks anymore, they have stood the test of time and may have interest in the Devils’ rights. SNY, which is owned by Sterling Equities (Fred Wilpon), Charter Communications, and Comcast, only has college sports airing in the Fall and Winter prior to the Mets. They could add 82 games of pro ice hockey. And if you have Comcast, then you may be itching for this to happen as Cablevision and Comcast still have issues. YES has the Nets and Liberty’s broadcasts, but they could want to get into hockey to diversify their programming. They do own an overflow feed so they can handle multiple games. Their presence and any interest they have - real and perceived - can help drive up the price in negotiations for the Devils. Which is obviously good for the organization.
What about going it alone? The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing that by taking over AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh and re-branding it to SportsNet Pittsburgh. I think these are separate situations. That was a RSN owned by Warner Brothers-Discovery, who was interested in selling it off to begin with. Plus, the Penguins are owned by the Fenway Sports Group. They also own the New England Sports Network, so they have access to resources that can run a such a network and acquire resources to do so. Josh Harris and David Blitzer own many things in sports, but not a media company actively airing sports on TV. And MSG Networks (and YES and SNY) is in a far more stable situation than Warner Brothers-Discovery. It is a different situation. The cost for the Devils to go it alone in this market is likely to be so prohibitive that it likely would not be worth the benefit.
Given the changing landscape of how media is broadcast with the rise of streaming and the networkization of streaming, I am prepared for Devils broadcasts to at least be something different in the future. I highly doubt it will not involve a local regional sports network in the area. I do not see the Devils striking out on their own for broadcasts or partnering up with someone new. As much as Diamond Sports is falling apart, the three regional sports networks here in the New York metropolitan region are backed and supported by others that are not likely going to fall apart anytime soon. I’m aware Diamond owns a share of YES, but I think the other owners - the Yankees, Amazon, Blackstone, RedBird Capital, and Mubadala - can make up the difference if need be. I think the decision will come down to MSG Networks and how much SNY and/or YES push. And as much as I can agree that it would be nice for the Devils to not play second banana to an inferior hockey team in Manhattan, I am not sure SNY or YES would be an actual upgrade for the team. Not in terms of reach or availability, at least. Again, if they offer way more than MSG Networks, then you know what deal the team would (should?) take. But I do not see it as an upgrade just because it would be different.
Even if it ends up being another extension with MSG Networks, how the games will be carried could shift more to streaming in near future. And hopefully in a future for less than $30 per month or $10 per game; and a future where the People Who Matter around the world will not be restricted for forced to use a VPN to watch Devils hockey games. But I cannot hold my breath on that. Perhaps Pete Townshend continues to be right.
Still, this is something to keep in the back of your mind as the season progresses. Perhaps this will be decided before the season. Or right after it ends. It is another area where there could be some real change or a confirmation of the status quo. What do you think? Do you think the Devils will be able to get another significant extension with MSG Networks? Do you want them to change networks? Are you prepared for a more streaming-based method of watching games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils and their broadcaster in the comments. Thank you for reading.