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Minnesota lawmaker urges Comcast, Diamond Sports to hammer out a deal

The lawmaker, Senator Tina Smith, says her voters can't watch Minnesota Twins games on cable TV.

The lawmaker, Senator Tina Smith, says her voters can't watch Minnesota Twins games on cable TV.

U.S. Senator Lisa Smith of Minnesota. (Photo by U.S. Senate Democrats, public domain)
U.S. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota. (Photo by U.S. Senate Democrats, public domain)

A federal lawmaker representing Minnesota has fired off a letter to Comcast’s Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts urging his pay TV company to return to the negotiating table with the goal of hammering out a deal to restore nearly two dozen Diamond Sports channels.

The channels, which are branded as Bally’s Sports through a licensing agreement, were pulled from Comcast’s Xfinity TV system in late April after the cable giant was unable to renew its carriage agreement with the Sinclair, Inc. subsidiary. The two sides were unable to meet on specific terms like per-subscriber fees charged to Comcast for carrying the Bally Sports channels and a streaming access perk that some other cable and satellite providers offer customers who have Bally Sports in their programming packages.

On June 5, Senator Tina Smith sent a letter to Roberts, explaining that the situation prevented her constituents from watching games from teams whose rights continued to be held by Diamond Sports.

“My constituents are furious,” Smith wrote in the letter. “Minnesotans look forward to watching the Twins [baseball team] all winter long. With no advance notice, households across Minnesota have been suddenly locked out of watching Twins games, affecting people in every corner of our state.”

That isn’t quite what happened. Comcast notified customers in writing through their bills and online through a dedicated webpage that their agreement to carry Bally Sports was ending on April 30. The warning served as notice that the channels may not be offered by Comcast beyond that date. While Comcast typically renews most of its carriage deals before its programming contracts expire, the cable company has been known to pull networks that it believes are too expensive to justify carrying.

In this case, Diamond Sports already offers its 20-plus Bally Sports channels through a dedicated app called Bally Sports Plus. Anyone living in an area where a Bally Sports channel holds the rights to local games can subscribe to Bally Sports Plus and receive the same programming for as little as $20 per month or $200 per year.

Still, some people prefer to watch sports on cable, and Smith’s letter suggests that should remain an option for an untold number of her voters who haven’t made the switch to streaming.

“While Comcast has provided small credits toward the bills of affected customers, a long-term outage of these games is untenable,” Smith wrote. “As more time passes, I am increasingly concerned that a real solution isn’t materializing. I encourage you to return to the negotiation table and work in good faith to promptly reach an
agreement that restores access to Minnesota professional sports and protects affordability for your
customers.”

Smith said she was particularly concerns about “media reports” that claimed Comcast was weighing whether to move Bally Sports into a more-expensive package, should it renew its agreement with Diamond Sports. The letter cited no specific media reports; The Desk was the first to report that Diamond Sports executives were concerned about their channels being relegated to a more-expensive package by Comcast.

“Fans are not bargaining chips and hardball tactics in the pursuit of greater profit shouldn’t prevent access [to] watching baseball,” Smith concluded.

It wasn’t clear if anyone from Comcast or Diamond Sports had responded to the letter since it was sent earlier this month.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Sen. Tina Smith as “Lisa Smith” in one paragraph and an accompanying teaser headline. 

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.

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