Confusing TV Channel Name Change Explained

Amid all of the changes in the media business in the last decade or so, I’ve never been asked as much about one even before it happens.

On March 31st, all of the Fox Sports-branded regional sports networks (RSNs) around the country will change their name to “Bally Sports.” Viewers just can’t seem to understand this, so I set out here to explain it. For the sake of an example, I’ll use Detroit, but the case is the same in media markets across the country. What has been known since 1997 as Fox Sports Detroit (or, for a while, Fox Sports Net Detroit), will be known as Bally Sports Detroit.

In short, the naming rights craze that began with college football bowl games in the 1980s, which all but guarantees sponsors the branding opportunities they pay for, has, for the first time, extended to a TV channel. The newest owner of the Bally brand, which has floated from pinball machines to fitness clubs to casino/hotels, now has firmly landing on a sports gambling app, has paid for naming rights of TV channels that carry some of the most valuable programming on any platform – live sports broadcasts.

The RSN business has become a costly one and ownership wants profit margins to remain high. Rights fees paid to teams are expensive. Production, to meet the demands of the modern viewer, costs more too and there’s no Fox Empire involved anymore to absorb or spread out the costs. The advertising is mostly sold locally and the live games only take up a portion of the broadcast day. The new ownership paid a bundle, likely financed by debt. They wanted more revenue so, the business move here, like it or not, was to monetize the name of the channels.

No, Bally won’t own the channels. Guess what? For a couple of years, Fox hasn’t either. Not long ago, Fox wanted out of the RSN business, apparently thinking, for them, it was post-peak. The plan was to sell to Disney, which would have likely branded them all with ESPN monikers. But the Federal Government nixed that deal. So Fox put them all up for sale again. In 2019, Sinclair bought the channels. If that name sounds familiar, it should. The company owns nearly 200 local TV stations and has been controversial at time, mandating right-wing national content in local newscasts. So, for about two years, Sinclair has been using the “Fox Sports” name.

This won’t affect the NFL or college games you watch on the Fox broadcast network (via your local affiliate) or FS1 via cable/streaming. Those are still owned by Fox.

From what I hear, things shouldn’t change much on TV. The announcers will be the same, but expect new graphics and frequent promotion for online sports betting in states like Michigan, where it’s legal and already dominating TV advertising like elections do every other October. The big change could be coming if you watch games via app. Check out this story, which shows that the app will try to drive you toward gambling while you’re watching games. That is indeed a change.

If it bothered you decades ago when naming rights were sold to arenas and concert venues, you’re not going to like this either. But, like the now very public intersection of gambling and sports, you’re going to have to get used to it. This is the first but it’s highly unlikely to be the last.