Examining the streaming issue that prevents a segment of Pacers fans from watching games
For the second straight season, fans cannot watch games on popular streaming platforms. It's an issue for 23 NBA teams.
Among the subjects discussed during a 41-minute conversation one week ago with Pacers owner Herb Simon was fan interest and the challenge for them to watch games on local television.
All 82 games this season air on Bally Sports Indiana, but subscribers to DISH and popular streaming platforms like YouTube TV and Hulu can’t watch the team. They can’t see Rick Carlisle back leading the team, Domantas Sabonis’ nightly double-doubles or lottery pick Chris Duarte’s fearless play.
They haven’t been able to watch games since the Orlando restart in August, 2020. That was two head coaches ago.
“There’s a disconnect because like 15, 20 percent of the fans can’t even get the game, which is really heartbreaking,” Simon said.
That estimate matches what has previously been reported on Fieldhouse Files.
The inability for a portion of fans to watch games with their subscription package has been an issue for sports fans across the country — not limited to the Pacers — for the past two seasons. And subscribing to NBA League Pass doesn’t solve the issue because live games are blacked out in the home market.
Sinclair Broadcast Group has an ongoing dispute with several carriers and it’s preventing subscribers from receiving the channel. It’s a concern I explained one year ago, even before the usual 2020-21 season, so fans could plan accordingly.
Since then, nothing has changed but the regional network’s name — to Bally Sports Indiana on March 31, 2021.
I hear you, Pacers fans. I’ve heard your frustrations on this site and on Twitter. The one chance you did have to watch the Blue & Gold live was Tuesday night when they played in Miami. The Pacers were embarrassed by a shorthanded Heat team and suffered their largest defeat of the season, 125-96.
So much for a good impression.
For the rest of the season, at least 15 percent of the audience cannot watch home or road games because the channel isn’t on the network they subscribe to. The network is available on cable platforms like xfinity, Spectrum and DirecTV. (To see what’s available where you live, click this link.)
Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner who attended Indiana University, got creative and worked out a solution with DirecTV two weeks into the regular season.
The deal provides fans with a $50/month stipend during the season if they subscribed to the CHOICE tier, which costs $84.99. So if they switched to DirecTV Stream, they could watch Mavs games on Bally Sports Southwest — and get all the other channels — for $34.99 per month, for up to five months.
The success of the program is unclear, but it has minimized complaints considering there is a reasonable option in place for this season. In reply to a skeptic on Twitter two minutes after the deal was announced, Cuban wrote, “It's me personally paying $2.5m dollars to buy down the cost of streaming Mavs games so people have an option they can afford. I don't get any financial benefit whatsoever beyond hopefully having more Mavs fans able to watch the games.”
During our interview with Simon, he was asked if anything that can be done for Pacers fans about the streaming concerns. Such as Cuban’s offering, which Simon was unaware of. So I explained it to him.
“I didn’t even know that,” he replied. “… We’ll look into it. That’s a very interesting concept.”
When reached via email, Cuban told Fieldhouse Files, “I have not spoken to other owners and don't know if they have called DirecTV to do a similar deal.”
Here’s the thing with Simon: He is more focused on the big picture and concerned about finding a sustainable solution rather than a temporary fix.
For decades, Pacers games have aired on Fox Sports Indiana, now known as Bally Sports Indiana. But that could change after this season. The Pacers are in the final year of their deal with the network, league sources told Fieldhouse Files.
And already, they are considering options to make games more widely available. One thing I believe in firmly is making all preseason games available. Bally Sports Indiana typically airs half the games, and it’s the ones at home. But there’s no reason the Pacers don’t stream the other two on their own site, for example. Other teams do it.
It’s marketing. And early in the season is when fans are reintroduced to the team, especially with a new coaching staff, lottery picks and an All-Star. It’s also when there’s the most unknown, so they want to watch.
“I think it’s a temporary thing,” Simon said of the streaming concerns. “The whole industry is shifting. We have consultants now telling us where we’re going locally. The league is looking where they’re going nationally.
“It’s a time of tremendous change in this area. I’m almost glad we’re not committed for too long in any one situation. I think in the next year or two, things are gonna pop. I don’t know where, I don’t know how, but it’s a good time to be flexible.”
Because of the current situation and lack of availability, some fans are missing out. They shouldn’t have to work to find an illegal stream or pay for an additional subscription. And thus: out of sight, out of mind.
That then leads to the box office. If fans aren’t being exposed to the product on TV, then they don’t have the opportunity to think, “That sure looks like fun. I want to be there.”
It’s why the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s local blackout of the Indianapolis 500 is nonsensical. It’s an antiquated notion. TV isn’t keeping locals from attending, it’s keeping them engaged and helping to market the team to the next generation.
Can you remember the last time a Colts game, or any NFL game for that matter, was blacked out on local TV? Of course not.
The Pacers rank 29th in attendance, only ahead of the lowly Pistons. They're averaging 13,362 fans per game, less than 75 percent capacity. There’s been two phases of renovations to Gainbridge Fieldhouse, but a portion of the fanbase hasn’t seen the updates because they cannot watch on TV and they’re not attending home games.
“We’ve had some social issues that kept fans away, as you know,” Simon said, noting that they received letters from some upset fans early on, but it hasn’t been an issue lately. “Then we’ve had the pandemic, which has kept fans away. We can go on and on and tell you all the reasons. It’s throughout the league, although there are some positives.
“I think we have an exciting team. I see every minute of every game, but maybe fans don’t feel that way. There’s a lot of reasons for that.”
The positives, according to data shared by the Pacers, are that 1) corporate sponsorships are up, 2) sales of suites and premium loges are up six percent from the 2019-20 season, and 3) single-game suite rentals are up “significantly.”
Group sales has negatively impacted attendance more than any other area. It doesn’t help that when they laid off about 50 employees during the pandemic (July 2020), many were group sales representatives.
“Group sales is the thing that is really problematic because people don’t want to get together in groups, which makes sense,” Simon added. “But our single-game ticket sales are up per game.”
Both TV viewership and attendance are league-wide issues. Among the 30 teams, 13 are averaging less than 16,000 fans per game. That was the case for five teams during the 2019-20 season.
As for the popular streaming platforms, they’re carrying the regional networks for only six of 29 teams (not including the Toronto Raptors); so games for 23 of 29 teams are unavailable, including the Pacers and the Mavs. They also don’t carry Spectrum SportsNet for Lakers games, MSG Network for the Knicks, any of the Bally Sports or AT&T RSNs.
“Every one has been impacted,” Simon said of the pandemic. “When you don’t have fans, that’s a good part of your income. The league has been helpful, but basically we’ve all taken losses.”
Again, it’s not an isolated issue. But it’s a troubling one for fan bases across the country. Then, the pandemic and surging cases of COVID-19, due to the Omicron variant, has sidelined many players and forced teams to call up guys in the G League for relief. (The NBA requires each team to have eight available players.)
So imagine buying a ticket before the season to Nets at Lakers on Christmas Day, and you surely paid a premium. Kyrie Irving has declined to get vaccinated so he hasn’t played, Kevin Durant and James Harden are both in the health and safety protocols (along with a half dozen teammates), and Anthony Davis is sidelined due to injury.
And if you’re in LA and subscribe to a streaming platform, you can’t watch it anyway.
The Pacers cannot allow for this issue to continue into next season for their fan base. And my sense, in talking with several team sources, is that they won’t. They’re excited about the possibility of getting creative and trying a few things.
And hopefully, like Simon said, “… in the next year or two, things are gonna pop.” Or else many, especially those under 40, will be tuned out and go elsewhere for entertainment.