Regional Sports Networks: Past, Present, and Future

Growing up in the '80s and '90s, there was but one all-sports television channel: ESPN. At least, that was the case in the Cleveland, Ohio media market, where I grew up and still cheer on most of their teams.

Two developments unfolded in 1992 and 1993, however, that had a young Kevin excited — the advent of ESPN2, and the "advent" of Sportschannel America.

I put "advent" in quotes the second time because Sportschannel did exist before 1992, but not through my cable company. My cable didn't pick up ESPN2 for quite awhile either, leaving me quite jealous of classmates who had it.

Sportschannel, on the other hand, I at least got during the day, when they would show these proto-computerized news tickers that had me glued to the TV. At night, when actual sports programming began, the signal would get scrambled — my cable company made Sportschannel a premium channel, and my stepdad would not abide premium channels.

Still, sometimes during free previews, or while someone was asleep at the switch, I would get Sportschannel's evening programming. The programming would come under the banner of either "Sportschannel America" or "Sportschannel Ohio."

Sportschannel Ohio? A channel just for Ohio sports? Now I've seen everything!

What I didn't realize was that I was watching Cleveland's first regional sports network, as we now call them, and that other cities had them going years back.

I had some inkling of ... something ... when I would watch game highlights on SportsCenter and they would give credit to the original broadcasters, which had odd names like Prism and PASS. Finally, Cleveland got onboard that train with Sportschannel Ohio.

After awhile, while Indians and Cavs games were unfailingly scrambled, everything else — typically content from the mothership, Sportschannel America — was not. It was through this channel that I really got to know and love the 1992-93 UNLV basketball team, something I have written in this space about before, as well as a memorable performance on the hardwood from Hawaii's Trevor Ruffin in their near-upset of #11 Louisville the following year. I even remember Kansas laying a 46-point win on UMKC (now branded just "Kansas City")

Why do I remember such trivial sports events? Because they were on a platform that was new and exciting to me, and that's something I continue to nerd out about 30 years later.

What happened next with the Regional Sports Network — RSN — landscape is probably known to most readers. Every major city got its own RSN, most of them affiliated with Sportschannel. Then all those RSNs became FOX Sports Whatever (such as FOX Sports Ohio) and then FOX sold all those to the Sinclair group, who has branded them under their Bally holdings to Bally Sports Whatever.

But what's interesting to me, and what brings me to the relevance of my trip down memory lane, is that it seems like more RSNs are breaking away from being affiliated with a larger network of RSNs and going a more independent route. First, some cities' RSNs are affiliated with other giants like NBC or AT&T rather than Sinclair.

Others RSNs are owned, basically, by a sports team or venue. New York has three such sports networks: YES (owned by the Yankees), SNY (owned by the Mets), and MSG (you can guess).

More recently, in Chicago, the Marquee Sports Network has been rolled out, although perhaps that shouldn't count because it's owned by Sinclair too.

Finally, one more city is set to have an RSN that's not part of a larger network of RSNs — Washington, DC. Get ready for Monumental Sports.

This makes me wonder if we are not traveling in a circle. Will Prism and PASS come back, too? Will eventually all of the sports channels be little islands unto themselves again? Will viewers, consumers, and the broadcasters that serve them become more interested in local and regional rivalries?

If so, does that trip back to the past mean that the same thing might happen in 20-30 years in college football?

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