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Another Possible Solution For MLB Blackouts

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This one might actually work.

Before you go off on me, this one isn't my idea. And before I tell you whose it is, click here for a larger version of the map above. That's always fun to look at. This new idea comes from baseball business writer Maury Brown, in this article he wrote for Forbes. In it, he mentions that Fox owns many of the RSNs that carry baseball games and carries the single largest chunk of games on any channel or group of channels:

Looking at game data, there were total of 4,667 games broadcast last year. Of those, 1,709, or 37 percent were on a FOX owned regional sports network. From FOX Sports SW to FOX Sports KC, and beyond, a large chunk of the total were broadcast by FOX.

If the owners and FOX could agree on a way to lift blackouts on their networks, would that be enough to push others into doing so?

Behind FOX, Comcast controls the second-largest percentage. The various flavors of Comcast SportsNet across the country broadcasted 775 games last season, or 17 percent of the total. From there you get into single digit percentages, but some of these are critical for another reason.

Something that has grown over the years has been ownership stakes by clubs in the RSN that broadcasts their games. From YES (Yankees) to MASN (Orioles and to a less extent Nationals) to SNY (Mets) and more, clubs have a vested ownership interest. So, can Manfred, with the help of newly appointed COO Tony Petitti who has a deep network background and ran MLB Network, as well as Bob Bowman, who grew MLB Advanced Media into a massive digital machine, but now is MLB’s President, Business & Media, help negotiate something that Manfred said is, "integral to the economics of the game" while also lifting the black curtain often in the fans’ eyes? It is a monumental task. Maybe blackouts get lifted by tacking on additional costs for in-market? Maybe you’ll get to have blackouts lifted, but it will come with an increase in subscriber fees? It’s not perfect. But, given whether fans had the option to pay what they are now and feel jilted with games blacked out, or knowing up-front that costs could increase, yet fans avoid blackouts, the odds seem exceptionally high that they’d opt to open their wallets wider and kiss blackouts goodbye.

To add to Brown's point about team ownership of RSNs, the Cubs are among the teams with such an ownership interest. They own 20 percent of CSN Chicago, as do the White Sox. This proposal might actually have some legs. Brown's suggestion of added fees or in-market costs would increase the amount of money brought in without devaluing the rights fees that clubs are now getting in huge amounts.

I was also most interested in the chart at the bottom of Brown's article, because when I had written about the number of games on over-the-air broadcast channels from 2014, I was going on published reports and also information given to me by SB Nation bloggers of teams who have OTA games. My numbers wound up a bit low.

There were 285 games on local broadcast channels last year (that doesn't include Fox-TV games). Brown shows a total of 4,667 games televised, but of course that includes games carried on channels for both home teams and visitors. There are 2,430 major-league games each season, or a total of 4,860 broadcast availabilities. The difference in the totals (193 games) are accounted for by games carried regionally or nationally on Fox-TV or ESPN, as well as a small number of games that aren't televised by anyone (hard to believe, but there are still a few). It's still a very small percentage of the total -- 11.7 percent of all games are OTA on local channels.

What most interested me are the WCIU and WGN totals from 2014. Since we know that WGN carried 70 Cubs games and WCIU televised eight, that means that, according to the numbers given, that WGN carried 30 White Sox games and WCIU did 24. I don't know what the White Sox plans are for games not carried by CSN Chicago this year.

The totals for the two Chicago OTA stations are by far the largest for any team, with the Cubs having 78 games OTA in 2014 and the White Sox 54. The next-highest total is 29, for WPIX (Mets), although WPIX is adding about 21 Yankees games this year.

This is why I don't think it's unreasonable for the Cubs to ask MLB to lift the blackouts for their 70 OTA games this year. None of those games competes with their own cable channel (CSN Chicago), and any "competition" with the other RSNs in the blackout areas is minimal. As Brown suggests, perhaps there could be a small surcharge added for MLB.tv or Extra Innings subscribers who would watch Cubs games that way.

Eventually this problem is going to have to be addressed, because while blackouts admittedly make MLB a lot of money, they also anger a significant minority of fans. Is it worth it, MLB?