As Carson noted over at NotGraphs yesterday, MLB.tv is set to begin broadcasting actual baseball games this weekend, with three match-ups on the docket for Saturday. And, as they mention on the subscription page, there will be 150 spring training games available with “NO BLACKOUTS” (emphasis theirs). That brings me to my annual rant about a product that I can’t live without, but is so deeply flawed as to frustrate me to no end. MLB.tv could be the greatest thing ever invented, but the insane MLB blackout policies are simply mind-bogglingly stupid.
Everyone has their own personal horror story about the blackout rules. Living in North Carolina, I know that I don’t have it as bad as others – the poor people in Iowa are blacked out from watching the Twins, Royals, White Sox, Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals – but the story here shows just how ridiculous Major League Baseball’s rules are. I am in the “local” market for four teams – the Braves, Reds, Nationals, and Orioles. The Braves are at least somewhat understandable, as I’m “only” about five hours from Atlanta and their games are readily available on cable networks in my area.
The other three, however, are essentially out of my reach. I’m 430 miles from Cincinnati, and no television carrier in my area offers Fox Sports Ohio. Why would they? It’s not like there’s much demand for Ohio area sports down here. Interestingly, I’m not blacked out from the Pirates, who are only 409 miles away, or the Indians, who are 476 miles away. I can’t explain the Pirates/Reds thing, and as for Cleveland, I guess that extra 50 miles makes all the difference in the world, despite the fact that it is more accessible via major interstates and it would actually take me less time to drive there than to get to Cincinnati.
The largest annoyance, however, is the situation with the Nationals and Orioles. Both team’s games are broadcast by MASN, who own the channel together. Time Warner – my cable provider – does not offer MASN as an option despite being ordered to do so in 2008 via binding arbitration, which they had agreed to enter as part of their acquisition of Adelphia in 2006. In January, May, and October of 2008, independent arbiters found that Time Warner discriminated against MASN, and ordered them to add the network to their list of channel offerings. Time Warner has simply appealed every ruling to date, and the case is now waiting to be heard by the FCC. Time Warner is still refusing to carry MASN, and as such, none of their subscribers in North Carolina are able to watch any Orioles or Nationals games.
Now, you could suggest that I switch cable providers, which would be a legitimate option, except that Time Warner has a monopoly in my area. They are the only game in town. I could switch to either Dish Network (sacrificing the MLB Network in the process, as DISH is still fighting with MLB and refuses to carry their channel) or DirecTV and get MASN through a satellite connection, but that presents a whole host of other problems, and for many people, satellite is not an option due to the technical restrictions of having to mount a dish with a “clear line of sight” of the satellite. Live in an apartment building or have some big trees in your yard? You’re out of luck.
What we’re left with is a situation where it is essentially impossible for me to watch any game involving the Orioles, Nationals, or Reds from my house. These games are not offered in my area, and yet, MLB has decided that I’m still in their local market and is enforcing blackout rules that prevent the product I have paid them significant money for to provide me access to games I cannot watch any other way.
It’s not like this is a recent issue. Time Warner and MASN have been fighting for three and a half years now, so MLB has had ample time to adjust their “local market” criteria and provide access to fans in my area. Instead, every year, we get the same hollow statements that it’s being looked into, and every year, we get nothing. Major League Baseball simply does not care enough about this issue to take any action, and it’s a black mark against everyone in the commissioner’s office that they continue to actively discourage people from being able to enjoy a significant portion of their product.
On many nights, I don’t have access to 20 percent of the games being played. For the poor people in Iowa, that is often as high as 40 percent. At the very least, MLB should be discounting the price of MLB.tv by the same proportion of games that users will not be allowed to watch. If being able to watch “every live out of market game” is worth $100 (or $120 for the premium subscription) per year, than being able to watch less than every game is reasonably less value, and should be priced accordingly.
Or, you know, MLB could actually fix these anti-fan, anti-growth-of-the-sport, anti-revenue-production, anti-logic rules once and for all. We want to watch baseball. We will pay for the right to do so. Just let us.