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A Possible First-Step Solution To MLB's TV Blackout Problem

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The answer might lie in how games are carried.

Wednesday, Nathaniel Grow posted "End The Blackouts" at Hardball Times. It's an excellent summary of how we got to where we are today in terms of MLB's TV blackouts. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

Two parts of it interested me most. First, this explanation of why games are blacked out in the first place:

In a nutshell, the policy prevents subscribers of either the MLB.tv or MLB Extra Innings services from viewing, in real time, the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game of the week, the subscriber’s regional Fox Saturday broadcast, or – most importantly – any game involving the subscriber’s designated "home" team. This latter restriction applies "regardless of whether or not a game is televised in a Club’s home television territory," meaning that even if your designated home team’s game is not being televised locally, you still can’t watch it on either pay-per-view service.

The problem for many of you as Cubs fans is that some of you live in a "designated" territory that's quite a distance from Chicago and (in some cases) shared with as many as five other teams. That causes this issue:

In other cases, blackouts will affect fans living a great distance from a team’s home city. Because teams’ home television territories frequently extend hundreds of miles, they often reach areas where the local cable provider has never carried – and likely never will carry – the regional network broadcasting a particular team’s games. Nevertheless, fans in these regions are still subject to MLB’s blackout policy. For example, even though most local cable providers in Hawaii do not subscribe to the San Francisco Giants’ regional network, all Giants games are still blacked out in the state. Not only does this mean these fans can’t watch the Giants play on television, but under MLB’s blackout rules they are also unable to tune in on the Internet via MLB.tv.

Or, as in the case of many of you who live in downstate Illinois, most of Iowa, and parts of Indiana and Wisconsin, your local cable system isn't likely to ever sign up for CSN Chicago. Some of you do get CSN Chicago, I understand, but even if you don't, through 2014 you at least had the 70 games on WGN America that you could watch.

The idea was, I suppose, that if you were in the blackout area you were supposed to lobby your cable system to sign a deal with CSN Chicago so you could watch those games. That was, of course, unlikely to happen in many cases.

What's even more unlikely -- in most cases impossible -- is for a cable system in Iowa, for example, to carry Chicago over-the-air channels WLS-Ch. 7 and WGN-Ch. 9, channels that are far out of the broadcast reception range for anyone not in metropolitan Chicago. Those broadcast channels will be carrying the 70 games that were formerly on WGN America for the next five years.

Here's where MLB could make a small tweak in its policy so that those of you in the blackout areas could watch those games by buying MLB.TV or Extra Innings. The tweak could come from this fact:

2014 MLB Local Games On Over-The-Air Broadcast TV Channels:

  • Cubs: 70
  • All other teams combined: 150

That's right. The other 29 teams combined only had a bit more than twice as many over-the-air games in 2014 as the Cubs did. Only seven other teams (Yankees, Mets, White Sox, Rangers, Nationals, Phillies and Giants) had any games on OTA channels. Everyone else has gone all-cable (and the Nats' 20 OTA games were also carried on cable channel MASN2 in 2014).

So what if MLB lifted the blackouts for over-the-air games only? That would still protect most cable games, but still allow people in the blackout areas to view games via MLB.TV or Extra Innings. MLB would likely sign up quite a few new customers in these areas.

Here's another look at the blackout map at the top of this post (Click here for an even bigger version):

The only teams that have multiple clubs in their blackout area are the Cubs and White Sox. Those two teams had the most over-the-air games in 2014; the White Sox' 35 was second only to the Cubs' 70. (Note that the 70 Cubs games that were on WGN America last year were, obviously, on WGN-Ch. 9, over the air in Chicago.) The Orioles and Nationals share a territory and are kind of a special case; the Mets and Yankees, obivously, share a market, but not with any other teams.

Since the vast majority of major-league games (about 91 percent, less the handful of national games on FOX-TV) are carried on cable, lifting the blackouts for over-the-air broadcast wouldn't be too onerous for RSNs and would, at least, be a step in the right direction.

Grow's article reaches this conclusion:

Rob Manfred should make resolving this issue one of his top priorities as commissioner. While reconfiguring the league’s blackout map will undoubtedly require some teams to renegotiate their regional network contracts, given the value of live sports programming today the time is ripe for MLB to resolve these issues once and for all. And to the extent the process imposes any real financial hardship on a franchise, MLB can use its central league coffers to compensate the team for its trouble.

He's right. Because if they don't:

Ultimately, should MLB refuse to act voluntarily, the time may come when its hand is forced. A lawsuit – Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball – is currently working its way through the courts challenging, in part, MLB’s television blackout policies under federal antitrust law. While the suit’s odds of success are uncertain, MLB would be wise to fix its blackout restrictions now, on its own terms, rather than risk having a judge or jury impose even more radical changes in the future.

Lifting the blackouts for over-the-air broadcasts would be a good first step, one that would let fans know that Major League Baseball does, indeed, want its fans to purchase its television product. I'd like to see MLB do this, and perhaps even before the 2015 season begins.