It may have slipped under your radar, but on Thursday, August 29, the New York Yankees made an acquisition that might redefine the day-to-day experience of the average Yankees fan. No, they did not sign a pitcher or claim one off waivers, or even activate a player off the IL.
They bought back the YES Network.
The Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, more commonly known as the YES Network, began as the brainchild of a now-defunct 1998 business merger known as YankeeNets between the business operation sides of the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets, as an attempt to get out of a monopoly-like contract with Cablevision and gain team control over their broadcasting rights. Although the Yankees lent their name to the channel, the Yankees and Nets both served as lead investors in the enterprise, which included Goldman Sachs, the Quadrangle Group, and multiple private investors. In 2003, the New Jersey Nets were sold, and YankeeNets was renamed to the Yankee Global Enterprises who, technically speaking, own the Yankees baseball team today.
As a result of all of this, the Yankees, the face of the YES Network, owned only a minority share of the Network. In 2007, Goldman Sachs put their share up for sale, and five years later, the News Corporation (News Corp.) acquired a 49% share on the Network. Two years later, 21st Century Fox (which gained the YES Network when it split off from News Corp in 2013) purchased an additional 31% to become the majority owner of the company.
As a result of this series of transactions, the YES Network has been available to stream as part of Fox Sports Go for the past few years, in what has been a godsend for those who either live or spend a significant amount of time in a place without cable. This situation, however, may soon be about to change.
On December 14, 2017, The Walt Disney Company announced plans to purchase 21st Century Fox, a move that has been celebrated by Marvel aficionados and condoned by those who support anti-trust laws (sometimes by the same person simultaneously). Due to Disney’s ownership of ESPN, though, they were required to sell both the Fox Sports Network and all associated regional sports networks, including the YES Network. Invoking a right-to-first-refusal negotiated into the sale to Fox, the Yankee Global Enterprises put together a group of investors and purchased YES, giving the Yankees control over their own network for the first time ever.
Although originally reported by the New York Post in November 2018, the deal was formally announced this past Thursday, with the Yankees releasing the following statement.
“This transaction brings @YESNetwork & all of its popular programming even closer to the organization that inspired its very development.... We look forward to greatly expanding the way that sports content is delivered & consumed by fans everywhere.” - Hal Steinbrenner pic.twitter.com/paatx4m9bx— New York Yankees (@Yankees) August 29, 2019
Now, this brings us to the big question: what does this mean for fans?
For the immediate future, it does not appear to be much, according to Andrew Marchand, the New York Post’s columnist on sports journalism. The Yankees will continue to stream on Fox Sports Go for the rest of the season. After that, however, nobody knows for sure.
As noted in the press release above, the Yankees are joined in the purchase by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and by Amazon, forming a new strategic partnership. Both new partners have been up-and-coming players in the sports journalism and broadcasting world, with Amazon entering its third season as a major streaming partner for Thursday Night Football, and Sinclair having just finalized a purchase of the Fox Sports Network (which includes Fox Sports Go, although both will likely be rebranded, along with the other 21 regional sports networks Fox Sports had owned) and are partnering with the Chicago Cubs to launch the Marquee Sports Network in Chicago.
While nothing will likely change for those who watch the Yankees via their cable package, the strategic plan for virtual distribution remains unclear. Had the Yankees partnered with either Sinclair or Amazon, the answer would have been clear; with the former, they would have continued their current relationship with Fox Sports Go, while with the latter, they would be at the forefront of Amazon’s growing sports streaming enterprise.
The press release, furthermore, does not give too many hints, stating that all three partners will “work together to enhance the network and position it strategically to continue its leadership in sports broadcasting across all forms of distribution.” It does not specify the role Amazon will play, and vaguely notes that Sinclair will help “manage traditional and virtual distribution relationships.”
The key to this relationship may end up lying in what makes YES unique. Unlike most regional sports networks, the YES Network has a national reach, with all non-game programming available to certain cable providers in a number of markets nationwide. Although MLB blackout restrictions would prevent games from being made available throughout the country, the YES Network contains a substantial amount of original programming that would appeal to fans of the Yankees, Nets, Manchester City, the NYCFC, and the New York Liberty. Because of this, the network already has a strong foundation both in terms of reach and programming that can be used to expand into a variety of other media, such as an online streaming service with original programming akin to ESPN+ or an app for mobile devices.
All this tells us, at the moment, is that there’s a lot of different directions that this new partnership can take the YES Network. Let’s just hope that, whatever happens, the Yankees will continue to be easily (and affordably) accessible via stream to those without a cable subscription.