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July 24, 2006

The Ledger Domain

Blackout Blues

by Maury Brown

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While the steroid issue has grabbed the front page, there continues to be a growing legion of fans that are truly upset with Major League Baseball over a separate issue that falls squarely on MLB's shoulders, and is not at all related to the players. Like fans upset about steroids in the game, many have written their representatives in Congress, and have attempted to bring the issue to the attention of the Commissioner's Office.

In last week's article, I posted a small blurb simply reading, "If you are caught in the middle of a blackout dilemma, e-mail me," as well as on my blog, The Baseball Journals. To show how widespread this issue really is, I received my first email less than 30 seconds after my article posted.

On average, I received an email from another "satisfied" MLB customer every five minutes. At its height, I pulled in six in less than a minute. I scrolled through the list of incoming messages with amazement. So many came in that I had to set up an inbox filter and create a new folder for them: Blackout Emails.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they all had a central theme: anger, coupled with confusion, coupled with more anger: "I'm not sure if this is what you are looking for but I'm frustrated. I pay hundreds of dollars a year for these viewing rights, and I feel cheated," only 'frustrated' was normally replaced with something a little more colorful.

They came in from all parts: Montana, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Oregon, South Carolina, Las Vegas, Louisiana... the U.S. was covered from sea to pissed-off sea. It didn't stop there--Japan, Vietnam, and Guam were represented. Age wasn't a factor, or race, or gender.

The e-mails haven't stopped. As I'm typing, another one's come in.

So this article is designed to do two things. First, I'm going to try and explain a bit about how the blackout restrictions work. And then I'm hoping that this article will be a way to give some of those that have been caught in this arcane mess a forum to express their extreme displeasure with Major League Baseball in the hopes that sooner rather than later the game's media chieftains address what many are calling "blackout hell."

Buyer beware

All blackouts are tied to the zip code on your credit card billing address. No matter where you live in the world. No matter if you have an MLB Extra Innings subscription, or are viewing games via the internet. No matter if you are watching over the air. You are going to be caught in at least one or more of these blackout restrictions.

The Four Flavors of the Blackout Blues

There are more or less four varieties of those stuck in blackout restrictions: the national Game of the Week blackout, the blackout for those that are a considerable distance from a market to warrant non-restrictive viewing, those that are trapped in overlapping blackout areas, and those that are blacked out of non-game programming, such as pre- and post-game shows.

  • National Blackouts: The entire country is blacked out for both the Fox Saturday Game of the Week (from Noon to 6 p.m. EST), and ESPN's Sunday Night Game (any games after 5 p.m. EST). No matter whether you're watching a game via Slingbox in Antarctica or smack dab in the heartland, you're not going to be able to see any other games than the games being played on these two networks.

    MLB describes this as "exclusivity." As I outlined in my article last week on the new Fox and Turner network deal, this trend will continue.

    In addition, Turner will start showing a nationally televised Sunday game in 2008. What is unknown at this time is if that game will be exclusive as well. Stay tuned.

  • Territorial Blackouts (a question of distance): First things first--MLB's blackout restrictions are nothing like the NFL's. In the case of the NFL, games can be blacked out within a 75-mile radius of the stadium in which a home team plays. For the most part, if the game is sold out 72 hours in advance, the broadcast can be shown. (The exception would be where there are two teams in the same market.)

    In MLB, it's a whole different animal. If you look at a map of the US with the broadcast territories, it's a confusing and complicated hodgepodge. Broadcast territories can extend hundreds, even thousands of miles for clubs. Minus the blackout issue, for some clubs these extensive broadcast territories have allowed some to become competitive where they weren't before. As Mariners President Chuck Armstong said in my interview for SABR in January of this year: "What had the biggest effect… 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 southern-most 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."

    While the territorial aspect has been a success for clubs for pulling in revenues, it has had unforeseen and highly negative impacts from a consumer standpoint. Case in point, Mike Grayson. Mike lives in Montana. He's mostly a Reds fan, but also follows the Mariners. Problem is, the Mariners are blacked out where he lives. As Grayson says, "It seems very odd that a team that is literally over 500 miles away is blacked out. It's not like I would be able to go to a game easily if I can't watch on TV; it's a ten-hour drive at best. The blackout zones are ridiculous."

    MLB.TV advertises, "Join the millions of fans who are watching LIVE baseball online EVERY out-of-market game LIVE." MLB's definition of "out-of-market" is something that anyone that's considering purchasing the package should look closely into.

    On the MLB.TV page, you do have the ability to check (by club) which zip codes are subject to blackout restrictions. Remember, this can only be done by club, not by multiple clubs, or by simply putting in your zip code to see if you are impacted by more than one club's restrictions (I'll get into that next). To put some numbers on the size of just the Mariners territory, a total of 1,928 zip codes are within their territory.

  • Overlapping Territories: One of the growing problems with television territories has been the increase in Regional Sports Networks (RSNs). Case in point, the creation of Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). When MASN was created as part of the relocation of the Expos to Washington, D.C., the Orioles and Nationals were designated to share, for the most part, a single territory. So, the RSN's vast reach includes not one, but two clubs.

    As Brent McConkey wrote,

    Here in Raleigh, North Carolina, we are considered to be the "home territory" for the Orioles and Nationals. The irritation for me arises when the Braves play the Nationals. Because Nationals games aren't televised locally and are also blacked out on the Extra Innings package, there's simply no way for me to watch these games unless I'm willing to drive six hours to Atlanta or five hours to D.C. to attend in person. So last year, for instance, when the Braves and Nats were engaged in a pretty good pennant race in late July, I had to listen to the games on the radio in order to follow the action.
    McConkey concludes, "It is absolute lunacy what MLB is doing to its fans and I can't for the life of me understand the justification for blacking out Nationals games in Raleigh, North Carolina. Godspeed on your mission to raise awareness of this problem."

    Another example was Dan Blakeslee from Holland, Michigan. As Dan writes,

    I live just under 200 miles from Detroit, and around the same for Chicago. It's three hours to Detroit, and about 2 1/2 to Chicago. Being so far from both, one would think that I would be out of range for blackout restrictions, but no. I can see both Cubs and ChiSox games, but not my beloved Tigers. I have contacted MLB and received absolutely no response. I cancelled my MLB.tv subscription because of this, and like I said, they have not responded to even one of my requests for an answer.

    And Brent and Dan's situations are small compared to some markets. Got your aspirin at the ready? Here are some examples. If you live in Oklahoma City, your restrictions involve the Astros, Rangers, Royals and Cardinals. The entire east side of New Mexico has the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Astros and Rangers. All of Iowa is blanketed with the Cubs, White Sox, Royals, Brewers, Twins, and Cardinals as blackout clubs. Buffalo, NY has the Indians, Mets, Yankees and Pirates as part of their "market" for blackouts. Charlotte, NC is blacked out by the Braves, Orioles, Nationals, and Reds. And finally, the all-time winner is Las Vegas, where the Padres, Diamondbacks, A's, Giants, Dodgers, and Angels are all parties to blackout restrictions.

    This issue of what clubs are within your blackout restrictions made up the bulk of the e-mails I received. With no method other than doing a painstaking search against all clubs within a large area of the US around which you live, you have no way of knowing whether you're stuck in "overlapping blackout hell."

  • Being Blacked Out of Non-Game Programming: It is one thing to say that games are blacked out to ensure folks get up and drive to games instead of watching them from home. It's quite another to justify blacking out pre- and post-game shows, game rebroadcasts, classic games, or any other non-game programming. Yet, this is exactly what MLB is doing.

    This issue has been a hot topic in the New England area, where NESN is broadcast. Red Sox fans have been upset about their inability to watch pre- and post-game programming due to blackout restrictions. As Frank DiBuo wrote, "I am still one of many who are continuously disappointed by MLB and their territory rights. After reading your post, asking for information--I feel this may help or at very least, I can use it as a chance to vent my frustration. When I purchased the Extra Innings package from DirectTV, I was 'upsold' on the sports package, at $12.00 per month, because a DirectTV customer service person informed that with this, I could see the pre- and post- game shows. Now, that is no longer available."

    In 2004, NESN President Sean McGrail wrote online in response to letters to NESN, "Major League Baseball controls the distribution of Red Sox games outside of NESN's territory (The six New England states, except Fairfield County, CT). As you know, to receive NESN's Red Sox telecasts outside of our territory, you can order the MLB Extra Innings package. In addition, as a DirecTV customer, you can receive the rest of NESN's original programming, including our one hour pre- and post-game shows, by ordering DirecTV's Sports Pack, which includes NESN and 24 other regional sports networks."

    I contacted NESN for a response on this, and shortly thereafter received an email, a portion of which reads, "We are pleased to inform you that we have resolved the situation and will now be permitted to distribute our pre- and post-game shows outside of NESN's home broadcast territory (all of New England except Fairfield County, CT) through the regional sports network packages offered by DirecTV and Dish Network."

    Sure enough, for a few days the programming was available. Then shortly after I received the email from NESN, the programming went back into blackout. Needless to say, fans are livid.

    Oh, and that online response from McGrail in 2004 that I referenced in my initial email to NESN? It's been pulled.

Closing Advice and Thoughts

When I ordered the MLB Extra Innings through my box on DirectTV, there was never any disclaimer about the blackout restrictions. I simply selected to purchase, and the transaction was completed. If you do wish to read what the restrictions are, you can do so by reading them online here on DirectTV's site.

Second, if you subscribe to MLB Extra Innings through DirectTV and find yourself wanting to ask for a refund, forget it. The disclaimer by DirectTV reads, "Sports subscriptions cannot be cancelled, transferred, refunded or credited (in part or in whole) after the season starts."

Third, as mentioned before, your zip code for your billing address is what is tied to the restrictions. If your zip code can't be verified, you're screwed. Case in point, Mark Gwyther, who writes, "Here's a blackout dilemma you might find unique. I cannot get Mariners home games on the internet in Saigon, Vietnam because the MLB website can't verify credit cards with foreign addresses."

Fourth, your local carrier can create added blackout issues. As an example, MASN and Comcast are locked in a dispute over showing games, and therefore roughly 1.2 million subscribers are locked out of games in the D.C. area.

Be aware of all of these issues before ordering. It may save you some grief in the long run. For all the e-mails I received, I want to thank the hundreds of you that contacted me. I read them all, and was astounded at the variety of locations and level of frustration that you have.

Of all the emails I got, the one from Dick Wood was probably the most interesting. Dick's father was Joe Wood, Jr. Joe Junior played one season with the Red Sox in 1944; Dick's grandfather was Smokey Joe Wood, the all-time ERA leader of the Red Sox, who played from 1908-22. As Dick said, "I live in Alaska. I am about a thousand miles from Seattle (about 1800 miles if driving). I don't want someone else forcing the Seattle Mariners on me as a local team. I'm sorry, THEY ARE NOT LOCAL, AND THEY ARE NOT MY TEAM! MLB needs to start protecting the fans' interests and stop trying to force this insane 'local market' nonsense on us."

I contacted the Commissioner's Office about the blackout restrictions and the fan displeasure surrounding them. MLB spokesman Rich Levin said, "We are aware of the problems and our broadcasting people are looking for ways to resolve the issues." This also falls in line with comments that Commissioner Selig made at a luncheon for the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). "I don't understand (blackouts) myself," said Selig. "I get blacked out from some games. Right now, I don't know what to do about it. We'll figure it out."

Pardon me while I don't hold my breath. While the times have certainly changed for the better, a quote by former commissioner Peter Ueberroth keeps ringing in my head. The subject was different, but the point was that every owner has his own individual agenda. "I don't think the owners are capable of colluding. They couldn't agree on what to have for breakfast." Currently, Selig has three years left on his term. Short of an act of Congress, the odds seem good that Selig will retire before getting the owners to agree on how to deal with the convoluted and arcane blackout restrictions we're seeing now.

I hope to get some answers to these questions that have come up for a possible article in the future. What seems clear is that the system is extremely flawed. It's backwards in the sense that it restricts consumers, which is a poor business model, and one that MLB's been involved with before. When radio and television came on the scene, owners scoffed at it. "Why would we support something that keeps consumers from coming to the ballpark?" What they found out was that by expanding, rather than restricting media coverage, MLB reached more fans. Mr. Selig is a man who prides himself on his love for the history of the game, but it nevertheless seems that history is repeating itself.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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