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Rob Manfred: Blackouts Are 'Integral' To Baseball Economics

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The new commissioner doesn't seem interested in modernizing baseball's local television map.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is 55 years old, a full generation younger than his predecessor, Bud Selig.

You'd think he'd be open to new ideas. (That is, besides banning shifts, which isn't a good one.)

Recently, Manfred sat down with Maury Brown, who writes about the business of baseball, for a wide-ranging interview. It's worth reading the whole thing, but I wanted to call your attention to the last question posed by Brown and Manfred's answer:

MB: The #1 customer complaint to MLB.com is about the league’s blackout policy. There are some markets that see as many as 6 teams blacked out due to club TV territories. What would you say to fans that pay to see games, yet wonder why a business would limit its product to them?

Manfred: Television territories that cause these blackouts are integral to the economics of the game. They’re a foundation of the very structure of the league. Blackouts are actually caused, not by our desire not to cover that area, but by the inability of the rights holder to get distribution in certain parts of the television territories. It’s not solely our issue to resolve. Having said that I am aware of these complaints and whenever we have an issue like this we are constantly evaluating how we do business to make sure we are as fan friendly as possible.

Look, I understand quite well why the blackouts are in place. It's laid out in this one sentence in Manfred's response:

Blackouts are actually caused, not by our desire not to cover that area, but by the inability of the rights holder to get distribution in certain parts of the television territories.

That's correct. What Manfred isn't acknowledging here is the way the territorial map is sliced up. I reproduce the map here because it's always interesting to see how MLB divvies up its "territories." (Click on the map to open a larger version in a new browser window or tab.)

It makes little logical sense and causes fans to be blacked out of games in some cases where they have no other recourse -- such as the 70 over-the-air games the Cubs are playing this year. It's going to be much more difficult for the rightsholders for those games (WGN-Ch. 9 and WLS-Ch. 7) to "get distribution in certain parts of the television territories."

Manfred claims he's "aware" of the complaints and wants to be more "fan-friendly." One thing he could do, as I've written before, is to waive blackouts for over-the-air broadcasts of games. Those amount to fewer than 10 percent of all the games played this year (about 220 of 2430). MLB has already waived blackouts for the over-the-air games carried on Fox-TV broadcast channels on Saturday afternoons and evenings -- you can watch out-of-market Fox games if you have MLB.tv or Extra Innings. Waiving blackouts for the OTA games would be a good first step, especially since the cable-rights bubble might actually burst in the next few years.

Your move, Mr. Commissioner.