On September 26, Clevelanders celebrated a very important milestone.
That was the date when they could finally stop complaining about Bally Sports not having a direct-to-consumer streaming option and start complaining about how much they hated Bally Sports+, the company’s new direct-to-consumer streaming option.
Sure enough, the morning after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season-opening loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Cleveland Scene ran a story with this headline: “Cavs Fans, Cleveland Mayor Spend Night Trashing Bally Sports for Continued Ineptitude in Broadcasting Games.”
But here’s the thing: Bally Sports insists that, social media complaints aside, the first few weeks have actually gone well, with most people who sign up for a one-week trial converting to a monthly subscription.
Also, Bally Sports insists they want to help people who have a bad experience. (More on that in a second.)
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and we just encourage people to give it a shot,” said Randy Stephens, senior vice president and general manager of Bally Sports Ohio. “We’ve had very good initial feedback for the most part. We think it provides something that will really help the fans and the teams in Northeast Ohio.”
Stephens and Michael Allen, Bally Sports’ chief product officer, spoke with Crain’s Cleveland Business in separate interviews last week to talk about the Bally Sports+ service in general, the solution it offers and the company’s goals around it.
(Side note: I signed up for the service on October 19th, and I’ve found it works fine on the Amazon Fire Stick, provided I leave it alone and don’t try to watch anything else during commercials. I’ve also watched through a Google Chrome browser on my MacBook Air and found it to be faulty. But again, it usually works as long as I let it.)
Here are five things they want you to know about the $20 per month service:
1. It is not a substitute for cable or satellite. It’s a gap filler.
Bally Sports sees cable and satellite companies as good partners and has no intention of trying to convince those customers to switch to streaming, Stephens said. That helps explain why Bally Sports+ is $20 a month, which is double the cost of the basic plan for streaming services like Netflix or HBO Max. Cable and satellite companies provide a steady stream of revenue, even if only a fraction of viewers watch Cavs or Columbus Blue Jackets games, and Bally Sports doesn’t want to mess with that.
“We think the traditional TV package is one of the best values out there and will be for a long time,” Stephens said. “Bally Sports+ is an opportunity to reach consumers who have already made the decision to opt out of this experience, or who have never been (cable or satellite) customers.”
The $20 price tag has left many viewers with sticker shock, including one on the website Awful Announcing who called it “an absurd, prohibitive cost.” But in fairness, he had to choose between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.
Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell has done his best this season to make $20 per
2. The early response has been positive.
Yes, this fits into the “What else are they going to say?” category, but Stephens insists the company has received an “overwhelmingly positive response” so far.
“When you launch something new, there are going to be hiccups and obstacles, but the people who have problems are a small subset,” he said. “We are laser-focused on solving these problems and getting these products as close to perfect as possible.”
Some of the issues stem from the fact that viewers use different devices to access the service. Bally Sports+ is available on 90% of streaming devices, Allen said, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and XBox, with more to come. But a first-generation Amazon Fire Stick might not work as well as the latest generation, he said.
“There are challenges because each platform is different and we have to make sure we build to make sure it works and works on each of the respective platforms,” he said. “There’s a bunch of different versions of each of those platforms that we built for. So it’s complicated in the sense that there’s multiple platforms, but it’s obviously something that’s really important to us, so that we expand our reach to its maximum.”
Bally Sports Ohio saw strong ratings for the opener against the Raptors, with 78,250 households (5.1 rating) marking a 72% increase over last year. It was the No. 1 rated NBA telecast of the 15 broadcast that night and 80% higher than the second highest rated game.
3. They are serious about customer service.
Bally Sports+ has an FAQ page that can answer many streaming questions. It also has a help page with links to customer service representatives via phone and chat. Bally Sports also has an active support handle on Twitter: @ballysportshelp.
“There are a number of ways for fans to contact us if they have issues and it also gives us great input on how we can make improvements,” Allen said.
If you do get in touch, the company will want to know three things: what device you’re using, how you’re watching (for example, if you’re a Bally Sports+ subscriber or if you authenticate via your TV provider) and your postcode.
“Those three things help us serve the fans pretty quickly,” Allen said.
4. They’re trying to add Guardians games…but can’t get their hopes up yet.
Bally Sports+ did a soft launch this summer in the five regions where it has baseball broadcast rights: Bally Sports Detroit, Bally Sports Kansas City, Bally Sports Florida, Bally Sports Sun and Bally Sports Wisconsin. Although Bally Sports+ launched at the end of the Guardians’ regular season, the games were not available because Bally Sports Ohio does not hold the direct-to-consumer rights.
When asked if Guardians games would be available next season, Stephens said: “All I can really say is that conversations are ongoing. Our desire is to have the Guardians as part of the product and we are having conversations with the team and the league. We hope so will be a successful conclusion, but we have no updates.”
Right now it’s not looking good. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told the Sports Business Journal that the league was “digging our feet” in terms of streaming rights because Diamond Sports did not explain how the digital rights would solve Diamond’s financial problems.” (Diamond Sports Group LLC is a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which owns the Bally Sports regional sports network.)
“Our reaction has been, why tie up additional rights in an entity that, by its own admission, has financial problems?” Manfred told SBJ.
5. Bally Sports wants to expand the service.
In addition to adding more devices — Samsung TVs, for example, could be on the way soon — Allen said the company has a number of items in the pipeline to enhance the fan experience, including alternative broadcasts. (Think ESPN2’s “Manningcast.”)
On mobile and web devices, Bally Sports already offers what it calls “interactive overlays,” which come in the form of trivia and poll questions designed to keep viewers engaged during breaks in action and game breaks.
“We have seen a very good turnout and participation at these functions so far,” he said. “About 50% of our users engage with this type of overlay. It’s very promising, and I think we’ll be doing more of it to make the overall experience even more engaging for the users who want it.”
And for the users who just want to watch the game?
“We’re not going to interrupt that viewing experience,” Allen said. “But for our younger demographic, who are more inclined to lean in and expect participation, we want to provide those opportunities.”