As sure as the swing of the bats and the crack of the ball signify the Boys of Summer are back, fan dissatisfaction at MLB’s television blackout policy arrives in full bloom. The range of emotions run from confusion, to outright rage, and all points in-between.
This topic has become a well worn topic here at The Biz of Baseball for me, so much so that during negotiations for Extra Innings last year, and the announcement of the upcoming MLB Network set to launch next year, we devoted an entire section to the site. Looking back through the comments made by customers will find many new to this topic shaking their heads in bewilderment.
Some are upset at how national broadcasts impact blackouts of local games being broadcast. Most, however, are frustrated at how blackouts impact MLB’s out-of-market television package, MLB Extra Innings, or how policy impacts games streamed on MLB.TV over the internet.
Here’s how the blackout policy for nationally broadcasted games works, as defined by MLB.com:
- Local Live Blackout: ALL LIVE MLB.TV games will be blacked out in each applicable Club's home television territory (except for certain home television territories for which MLB.com may offer in-market subscription services) or in Japan.
- National Live Blackout (Regular Season): Due to Major League Baseball national exclusivities, each Saturday until 7:00 PM EST (beginning May 17, 2008 and continuing for remaining Saturdays during the regular season) and each Sunday night (for games that begin after 5:00 PM EST), all scheduled webcasts of games played within such time period will be blacked out.
- National Live Blackout (Post Season): Due to Major League Baseball national exclusivities, during the MLB postseason, if you live within the following nations or territories, webcasts of all postseason games will be blacked out: United States, Canada, Guam, US Virgin Islands, South Korea and Japan.
- NOTE: Due to broadcast restrictions, new MLB.TV and Condensed Game archives are limited to a playing time of five minutes in duration until 6 am ET on the day following that on which the applicable game commenced play.
Confused? You’re not the only one. And that's just the national blackout policy.
At the local level, blackout restrictions impact home games where you are deemed to be in the “local” market. If your “local” team is on the road outside of the “local” market (sorry Mr. and Ms. Las Vegas hoping to see the Diamondbacks play the Dodgers in LA, the Dodgers are your local team, as well), you can catch the team via a feed outside of the local restriction.
While the NFL defines “local” market as a 75-mile radius around the stadium location where a team plays in a given market, MLB’s television markets have no rhyme or reason to them. They are negotiated in a manner that creates overlapping territories by as many as six teams, and can cover vast regions of the country.
Case in point, the Seattle Mariners.
For the uninitiated, wrap your head around this: All of Washington, Montana, parts of Alaska, Idaho, Canada, and Oregon is considered the Mariners “local market”. Understandably, this is an incredibly lucrative position for the Mariners to be in. They recently reached an agreement with regional sports network FSNW that is reportedly $500 million. The Mariners have been one of the most profitable clubs in the league due to the television revenues. As Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said to me in an interview for The Biz of Baseball,
What had the biggest effect on that was finally getting a cable television contract. It was an act of Congress that allowed sports teams to allocate television territories, and I have been astonished at the impact of cable television. While we don’t have that many people in our market, we have the largest territory in terms of square miles. We have Washington, Oregon (although we share the six most southern counties with the A’s and the Giants), Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and then as against all other U.S. teams, we have British Columbia and Alberta. Getting that cable contract increased our reach and made fans in Montana, Oregon, Alberta, and British Columbia, and Alaska of course. We turned them into Mariner fans.
So while this has created added revenues, and in turn allowed for increased payroll flexibility for the Mariners, it has placed the consumer in a bind based on the broadcast territories. And, as recently as yesterday, an Anchorage resident that said he had been able to get games due to not being “local” last season, finds himself in the blackout blues, this.
As mentioned, territories overlap, which can impact what game you can, or rather, can’t see for more than one team.
Here are the most extreme examples:
If you live in Las Vegas, you are subject to “local television” blackout restrictions for the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Athletics, Padres, and Diamondbacks.
In parts of Iowa, you can be blacked out for the Royals, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Twins, and Brewers.
So, when you hear that “every game is available” beware, because that’s really stretching the truth unless you look deep inside the “blackout restrictions apply” part of the fine print. Backing out of agreements with MLB.com or DirecTV is nearly impossible once you make the jump.
How does one find out if you’re going to be trapped in more than one “local” territory? Well, set aside some time. You have to look up what games are available by Zip Code.
Here’s the location for DirecTV to look up games.
Placing a Las Vegas zip code gets you a line-up devoid of “local” games. In other words, you can catch the Diamondbacks because they’re in Cincinnati playing the Reds, or the Angels because they’re playing in Minneapolis against the Twins. But, if you want to watch the Padres play the Astros in San Diego, you’re blacked out for the game even though San Diego is about 340 miles, or 6.5 to 7 hours driving time away.
Over two years ago, Commissioner Selig was asked about the blackout policy in baseball.
"I hear more about people who can't get the game," Selig said, "and, yes, I've already told our people we have to do something about it."
Well, as baseball goes, welcome to dragging your feet. "Doing something about it" means waiting until MLB is shoved into the corner on the issue.
I have written on more than one occasion that the arcane policy would have to be addressed when 50 million cable subscribers turn on games next year on the MLB Network. The proposal is for approx. 26 games a year on the new network. If the policy, as it stands, is still in place, watch for consumers to scream loud and clear. But, the fact of the matter is, there’s no way on earth that the policy gets to the NFL’s level. All consumers will be seeing, at best, is a tweaking of the policy. In the meantime, I’m interested, as always, in hearing your stories on how you are impacted. The more that understand the restrictions, the less frustrating it should be… or rather, the frustrated on the sidelines will avoid signing up for “out-of-market” packages, or those that have the package can take solace in the notion that at least they’re not alone.
To see more on this topic, as well as Dan Werr’s television territories mapping from a few years ago before the Expos relocated to Washington, DC and impacted the Orioles and Nationals TV territories, read Why MLB Relocation/Expansion Won't Be Happening Soon
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