Let's Talk About... MLB's TV Blackouts

Here's a topic on which we can all likely agree.

I've written about this many times before, but have been prompted to do so again this afternoon as a result of a new Jeff Passan column on MLB's ridiculous local TV blackout policy, which he sums up deftly:

Territorial rights existed in an era well before the explosion in TV money, and the game – and its technologies – long ago outgrew the idea that a team could be defined by some crudely drawn boundary. Baseball argued in its letter to Scheindlin that territorial rights "serves fans by … supporting a healthy, competitively-balanced league to produce games by 30 clubs, each of which is the favorite 'home team' to its fans."

If that is the case – this ideal in which fans chose a singular home team – how can the league advocate for a system in which it prevents people in Las Vegas from seeing the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Giants, A's and Diamondbacks if they buy its Extra Innings or MLB.tv packages? There's a new slogan: What happens in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Arizona doesn't stay in Vegas. Baseball recognizes how detrimental blackouts can be. In its new national TV deals, it got rid of the Saturday blackouts during Fox's afternoon games as well as the Monday and Wednesday blackouts for ESPN games. This was an obvious move. In a sport bleeding fans nationally, letting people view your product is Business 101.

"Scheindlin" is U.S. Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is currently hearing a lawsuit that hopes to overturn the blackout rules. MLB is treading on thin ground here, I think, because the league has, according to Passan:

... invoked its controversial antitrust exemption, a rare move for a case that involves non-relocation or non-labor issues and a sign that it takes the suit very seriously.

Sooner or later, that exemption -- which is nearly 100 years old, didn't make sense at the time and doesn't now -- is going to be revoked, and baseball had better be ready. More germane to us as Cubs fans is the note above about blackouts in Las Vegas. I found this out myself three years ago when I went to Vegas for a weekend, arrived around 10 p.m. and thought, "Hey, I'll see what game is on now and watch on my phone," while I was in the taxi to the hotel. The only game that hadn't concluded was Astros at Dodgers.

Curses! Foiled! I'm riding in a taxi in Las Vegas, but Bud's rules wouldn't let me watch a game being played several hundred miles away! Why, I should have just asked the taxi driver to head to Dodger Stadium, so I could have...

Of course, I am well aware that's not the issue; the issue is trying to get RSN coverage in these markets, which in many cases isn't going to happen, particularly in parts of Iowa, also a six-team blackout area (see the map above). This really helps no one, and as Passan points out, worth repeating (emphasis added):

In a sport bleeding fans nationally, letting people view your product is Business 101.

Passan's use of "nationally" is important. Locally, baseball is doing quite well, as noted by the Dodgers' recent signing of a $7 billion deal with Time Warner to start their own TV channel, SportsNet LA.

Oh. Wait. Because none of the cable or satellite systems in Los Angeles that aren't owned by Time Warner are interested in carrying this channel (one LA-area cable executive said, "The Dodgers already had a perfectly good channel. Why do they need another one?") at the extra cost the Dodgers want -- the cost that will help pay that $7 billion -- about 70 percent of Dodger fans in the LA metro area can't watch their team.

This wouldn't be a huge issue without blackouts, but it is, because even if you have a MLB.TV subscription, you can't watch the Dodgers in Los Angeles using it. Blacked out, don'tcha know. This is why it's a cautionary tale to the Cubs, who might want to start their own TV channel after 2019, when both their TV deals will be up. But five years from now, what cable system would want to carry such a channel, even if the Cubs are a good team then?

If cable cord-cutting continues at its current pace, MLB might have to move to an all-online model, an a la carte model, or somewhere in between. Right now, though, blackouts are turning people off.

I'm not sure what the best answer is. I am sure it isn't the current system.

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