Sports

Major League Baseball’s Ridiculous Blackout Policy

New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge hits a two-run double against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium, October 9, 2017. (Brad Panner/USA TODAY Sports)
It’s preventing people from watching the game they love.

After another crazy week in politics, we all need something to rally around that will cheer us up and distract us from the increasing madness of the national shouting match that passes for conversation. For many of us, the return of baseball at the end of March promised to be exactly that.

Sadly, though, Major League Baseball has developed a complicated schema that conspires against us desperate fans, often making it nearly impossible to watch our teams play, depending on where we live. So much for sitting down on the couch and soaking in a great baseball game after a long day.

After confronting this issue in my own harrowing quest to watch the Yankees trounce the Red Sox this week, I wrote a tweet suggesting that perhaps MLB should turn its attention to this issue if it wishes to keep old fans on board, rather than tweaking playing rules to shave milliseconds off game times in an effort to attract new casual viewers.

My tweet was met with an unexpected outpouring of enthusiastic agreement. Hundreds of people piled on, many recounting their experiences of how MLB viewing rules have prevented them from watching their teams play.

The main culprit is the MLB blackout policy, which divides the country into bizarre regions based on mysterious metrics and prevents viewers from watching certain teams’ games, depending on where they live. So while MLB offers online-streaming packages on its site — one for all teams and one for a single team of your choice — both (along with regular cable packages) are subject to a complex maze of blackout rules.

In short, these rules make trying to watch a baseball game more difficult than panning for gold in the Atlantic.

If you live in New York City, for example, don’t bother trying to subscribe to MLB.TV to watch the Yankees or the Mets, because the blackout will prevent you from watching either team’s games — home or away. In Los Angeles, both the Angels and the Dodgers are blacked out all season. The Boston Red Sox are blacked out across the entire Northeast. On and on it goes, all across the country.

This makes very little sense, of course; MLB is penalizing viewers for living in their team’s home city or region, the exact opposite of what a successful streaming service would do. But in one sense, at least, these examples are straightforward enough. They’re due in large part to MLB’s deals with cable or team networks, which want exclusive territorial rights for showing local games. And MLB officials have also said that they hope blackouts will encourage fans to go to ballparks instead of watching on television (more on this point later).

But the blackout rules get even worse. Take a few, more outlandish examples. If you live in certain parts of Virginia, both Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games will be unavailable; in other parts of the state, it’ll be the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds. In much of Pennsylvania, including places such as Scranton and Lewisburg, four teams are unavailable: the Yankees, Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Oklahoma baseball fans have no access to the Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, and Texas Rangers.

Some regions have no access to up to six teams. In Las Vegas, the Oakland Athletics, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels, and Los Angeles Dodgers are all blacked out. And Iowans are blacked out from the Royals and Cardinals, along with the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox.

These inexplicable blackouts exist all across the country, each one somehow seeming to make less sense than the last. You can see why viewers might be a bit distressed. But fine, you might say. True fans will fork over the extra money for a cable package, eating the cost of hundreds or thousands of unused channels for the sake of watching baseball. Well, even that doesn’t always do the trick.

In 2015, for example, Comcast and the Yankees’ YES Network failed to agree to a new contract, leaving fans in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania with no way to watch the Yankees for all of 2016. Just a few years before that, Time Warner Cable made a deal with the Dodgers to create a regional network to carry all of the team’s games, which now reach less than half of the Southern California market as the result of cable companies’ refusal to carry the expensive network.

These stringent blackout policies are a tremendous mistake, particularly at a time when increasing numbers of young people are abandoning cable altogether in favor of online streaming.

As a result of stalemates such as these, not only do blackouts counterintuitively block local fans from watching their teams and force them to buy exorbitant cable packages, but they also leave fans subject to the whims of big companies that have little motivation to cut the deals necessary to make games accessible to local fans.

In such a convoluted structure, it is remarkably naïve of MLB officials to believe that people who are unable to watch their team on TV will suddenly decide to become season-ticket holders in an effort to see more games. For one thing, the blackout regions are so absurdly drawn that traveling to the stadium for live games is next to impossible for huge numbers of baseball fans. In Florida, for example, Miami Marlins fans in Jacksonville can’t watch on TV, but they also can’t very well trek five hours downstate for the game every evening. What college student studying in Scranton or Des Moines or Richmond, who grew up watching baseball, will decide to buy an entire cable package just to watch his team play? And if kids don’t grow up watching their local team because games aren’t on TV, what reason do they have to become invested in the sport at all?

These stringent blackout policies are a tremendous mistake, particularly at a time when increasing numbers of young people are abandoning cable altogether in favor of online streaming. MLB officials fret constantly about declining viewership, especially among younger viewers, and they continue to propose rule changes that they believe will attract new fans and retain old ones by shortening the games.

They should start by letting fans watch them.

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