The MLB TV Blackout "Geniuses" Are At It Again

Colorful, isn't it?
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If you thought Bud Selig, Bob DuPuy and the others who "run" (and I use the term loosely) major league baseball were about to revise the decades-old, arcane, MLB television blackout rules, think again.

The rules were developed in the 1970's when teams' broadcasts were being shipped to cities outside the clubs' home markets via cobbled-together broadcast-station "networks". Those of us who watched the Cubs in the early '70s remember Jack Brickhouse's recitation of the stations on the pre-cable, pre-satellite "WGN Continental Chicago Cubs Baseball Network", consisting of stations in (I may be leaving some out here, as I'm relying on 35-year-old memories) Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, South Bend, Grand Rapids, LaCrosse, Rhinelander, Ft. Wayne, Madison, Des Moines, Waterloo, and the Quad Cities.

Maury Brown, who has written intelligently on this topic many times, wrote again about it recently at the Biz of Baseball site:

Word is that MLB hopes to have a proposal to address the arcane blackout policy formulated by opening day. With owners grasping onto every thin dime, odds seem exceptionally long that restructuring the television territories will take place by the time the first pitch arrives on the 2009 season. MLB president and COO Bob DuPuy has said that the proposal being presented would have a club lose a portion of their television territory, if they have not broadcast within it for over a year.

The potential problem with this model deals with what are called "haircut provisions" – advertising agreements that are tied to audience size. So, in principle, even though a club may not be broadcasting in an area of their granted television territory, the total audience size is still considered within it. Removing the areas not being broadcasted to would, ostensibly, make the audience size smaller, thus impacting ad deals.

If you're not quite sure what that means, Rob at 6-4-2 nails it (and hat tip to Rob for the Maury Brown link):

Seriously? Seriously? Advertisers are really dumb enough to pay for eyeballs they aren't reaching? Maybe we should say that broadcasters are dumb enough to pay for carry provisions to eyeballs they aren't reaching, because this mainly affects regional sports networks like Fox Sports West and its brethren (NESN, YES, Comcast Sports, etc.). Such a move would probably entail reworking existing contracts, and in this environment, nobody wants to go there.

Of course, it's the teams, in addition to the broadcasters, who want these rules in place. Here's my take: it's the big-market teams, like the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox (the latter, if you look at the map, has most of New England completely to itself, territorially), who are being held hostage by small-market clubs, and I'm going to call you out specifically, Kansas City Royals.

Look at the map above, specifically at rainbow-colored Iowa, festively five-colored for the Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, Brewers, Twins and Royals (the Cubs and White Sox share a color in that scheme, noted as "Chicago: both teams").

The map makes you shake your head. The Brewers have fans in Iowa? The White Sox? (A few, perhaps.) The Twins, outside of a few counties in northern Iowa closest to the Minnesota border? The Royals, outside of a few counties in the southwest corner of the state? Look at the map -- the Royals claim Kansas and Nebraska, which makes some sense, although I'll bet there are far more Rockies fans in the western parts of those states than Royals fans.

Iowa has been Cubs country for at least 28 years, since the Cubs took over the Triple-A affiliation in Des Moines from the White Sox. The Cubs also had a long-time affiliation in the Quad Cities. The Royals are protecting something that no longer exists -- television broadcasts on stations in Iowa of Royals games. Most teams don't even do many over-the-air broadcasts in their home cities any more, much less in Ottumwa, Iowa. The Diamondbacks went all-cable last year and I suspect other teams are heading that way.

I don't know how many times I can say this or how loud I have to shout it: if you are willing to pay for a baseball telecast, you should be able to receive it, whether it be by satellite, digital cable or MLB.TV. Never mind your zip code, never mind "blackouts", and that includes the Fox Saturday games -- technology exists where, for example, if you wanted to watch the Cubs on Fox and they weren't being carried in your local market, you should be able to get them while still seeing the local Fox station's ads, which is the point of regionalizing the games in the first place. They are assuming that if you live in, say, Atlanta, you'd want to see the Braves. But that doesn't recognize the fact that in our mobile society, there are fans of every team moving just about everywhere, and that teams like the Cubs, who have a national following, have fans living from coast to coast.

I'd love to see the Cubs take the lead in pushing the small-marketers to give up this ancient policy, which benefits no one (not even them, as they are, as noted above, blacking out markets they don't even broadcast to), and move televised baseball into the 21st Century. Maybe the MLB Network will be of some help in carrying otherwise-blacked out games in the future. The current policy smacks of Dollar Bill Wirtz' claim that by keeping home games off TV, he was protecting his precious "season reservation holders"; in reality, he was shrinking his fanbase and not promoting his product.

In any case, it's time. Get this done.

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