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Article: Major League Baseball is Squandering Fans

by on April 7, 2023

Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I was a Chicago Cubs fan from a young age—while it may have felt like a fool’s errand at times, there were plenty of wonderful moments, not to mention sharing this with friends and family. Many years later and a few moves from my childhood home, I find myself in another corner of the state and that it’s nearly impossible to watch my team without jumping through hoops, both technically and financially, and I’m just not feeling like it’s worth the effort.

This article is not a technology issue per se, but does hit a sweet spot of the changing business models around media and technology, not to mention a source of frustration for many fans. If you weren’t familiar, like the NHL, NBA, and WNBA, MLB offers an all-inclusive streaming package that has all of the games, known as MLB.TV. Launched in 2002, and intended as a way for out-of-market fans to watch their favorite team, it’s the gold standard of sports streaming—generally regarded as having a great interface and generally works. It’s increased in price to $149, but feels worthwhile if you use it enough—it also includes condensed game replays, full replays, and a lot more video goodness. T-Mobile customers also have gotten it for free for years, making it more ubiquitous.

Sounds good, right? There’s one glaring issue—blackouts. Depending on where you live, select games aren’t available on MLB.TV because you should be watching these on your local cable provider. Joe Rivera for The Sporting News explains:

Because of how invested Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) are MLB in now — with all 30 teams’ TV rights subject to airing on a local RSN — not all out-of-market fans get to see their favorite teams. In fact, in certain areas like Iowa, as many as six teams are subject to blackout rules.

If you choose not to have cable in New York, the Mets and Yankees won’t be available via streaming service. If you’re in LA, the same goes for the Dodgers and Angels.

There isn’t an exact fix for this, either., the league’s streaming service, doesn’t allow for in-market viewers to stream games.

The reasons for the blackouts is simple and twofold: The first is cable providers’ desire for exclusive broadcasting rights in their local networks. The second is MLB’s desire to get fans into the stadium for attendance purposes.

Unfortunately, though, for a lot of fans, getting out to the stadium isn’t exactly an easy endeavor. In certain areas — like the aforementioned Iowa, or Las Vegas — the nearest ballpark can be a long drive or a plane ride away. So while seems like a reasonable alternative to cord-cutting, it actually is a bad idea for cord-cutting.

In my case, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Detroit Tigers, and the Cincinnati Reds are a no-go. on MLB.TV. Instead, I need to find a cable/satellite/live TV streaming provider that includes Marquee Sports Network, which is co-owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and the Cubs themselves. Unfortunately, like the various Bally Sports Networks in other markets, Marquee removed itself from just about everything except some traditional cable providers, DirecTV, and Fubo—no Dish, no Hulu with Live TV, no YouTube TV, and no way to subscribe directly. Like many folks under 45, I’m not going back to cable, much less an almost-cable-prices streaming service (remember when Hulu with Live TV was $40/month? Ah, the good ol’ days.) Folks in Guam are apparently in the Bay Area, as they can’t watch the San Francisco Giants or Oakland Athletics. The regions are ridiculous.

(I will acknowledge that one can use a VPN in some instances to fake their location, but a lot of casual fans may not be interested in another expense and something that falls a bit more in the realm of geeky tinkering.)

This strategy has been working out poorly for Sinclair and other regional sports networks, as they’ve become a money loser (Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Group subsidiary that owns Bally Sports Networks is going through bankruptcy and owing a lot of money to MLB clubs, sadly for me Marquee isn’t part of that implosion). They’ve sold Bally Sports+, an à la carte option priced from $20-$30/month, but not all clubs are included.

The problem with some of this is that the league itself handles some broadcast rights, but all thirty clubs also have their own deals, so making wholesale changes just isn’t possible. Instead, a lot of the fossils in charge seem to think that fans are happy with the old RSN model, or at least are willing to put up with it. If not, it seems that they aren’t real fans and the sport can afford to lose them. That’s an arrogant attitude that is only going to age poorly with time.

Contrast this antiquated model with the deal Major League Soccer signed with Apple—anyone can watch every game for a flat price through Apple TV+ (you get a discount if you have MLS Season Pass and Apple TV+ together) and there are no blackouts. National sports networks like ESPN or Fox can pick up games and they’re not blacked out for streamers on Apple TV+. The only way it could be more fan-friendly is if the deal also allowed local broadcasters to pick up select games for cable or over-the-air broadcasts (you know, for the “sports are only real if they’re on traditional TV” crowd).

I know it’s a big ask, but MLB should be embracing new technology and forcing clubs to fall in line. Everything can be on MLB.TV and if you’re in a home market (such as Indiana for the Cubs), you get local ads. It feels like a win-win and a way to grow fanbases. Instead, the message being sent is that we should go back to subscribing to cable, like a team that is in another part of the country, or just find something else to do with our time. Sadly, I’ve found myself falling into the third category more often than not.

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