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We are three weeks into the baseball season and we are now starting to see the annual stories about fans complaining about Major League Baseball’s blackout restrictions.And while there is hope for some fans, it won’t come from Major League Baseball.
To get a better picture of the situation, we need to clarify the two different types of fans that are being blacked out…
These are the fans that have access to their hometown team’s games on TV, but want the option of watching the games on-line, whether that is a home computer or on a mobile device.
Major League Baseball can’t lift blackouts for these fans. For every fan moving to a computer, or a mobile device, that is one less fan that is tuning into the local network that is broadcasting the game.
The simple solution would seem to be to just use the local network’s feed through MLB.tv. This way the network’s commercials are not losing any eyes. But that only solves half the problem. Beyond the networks, there are also the local cable providers (e.g. Time Warner, Comcast) who pay the networks to air their content. If the network broadcast is being diverted to MLB.tv, that is fewer people that are tuning into the local cable provider.
This a bit of a misnomer. These are the fans that don’t close enough to get local broadcasts a specific team’s games, but they are still considered part of that team’s market. That means they can’t watch that team’s games online or on the Extra Innings cable packages.
Here is MLB’s territorial map, much of which makes little sense on the surface. The Rays territory includes southwest Alabama? The Mariners claim Montana? Six (6!) teams claim the great state of Iowa?
MLB is losing fans in these areas. OK, maybe they aren’t losing a lot of Rays fans in southwest Alabama, but they are losing Twins fans in Iowa. And they are losing Giants fans in Hawaii.
But at the same time, regional sports networks (RSNs) are paying Major League Baseball a lot of money to maintain these boundaries. While they may not be broadcasting in the entire region for a specific team now, these networks are much more regional than they were 20 years ago and the RSNs may be targeting those areas for expansion. Offering those regions Major League games that are not available through other means can be an enticing feature.
Ultimately, the solution is likely one that we are already seeing in some areas. This season, Yankees fans that already subscribe to a cable provider that provides Yankees games on the YES Network can watch 127 Yankees games online for $70 this season.
In other words, leave the out-of-market streaming to Major League Baseball and let the local RSNs and cable providers provide the in-market streaming.
The online broadcasts aren’t available through the MLB.tv package or on mobile devices, but that seems like the logical next step for the cable providers and RSNs.
Of course, this doesn’t help those fans that don’t have access to the games on cable and yet are still deemed to be in a particular team’s market. For that, there may never be a solution. The money being offered to teams by RSN’s (the Rangers most recent deal was worth at least $1.6 billion) to maintain those boundaries far exceeds any extra revenue that would be generated from the Twins fans in Iowa or the Giants fans in Hawaii or the Mariners fans in Montana.
That certainly sucks for those fans. But it is better for Major League Baseball. So don’t look for the boundaries to change anytime soon.