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April 12, 2008

Blackout Blues

Not Quite Catching All the Action

by Maury Brown

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Nothing is more maddening than feeling like you were buying into a good thing, only to be trapped in the fine print. Take being a baseball fan, for instance. You moved across the country and want to catch your former home team? Here's MLB Extra Innings for television. Traveling and can't get to a TV? Here's MLB.TV for your computer. Want to get video updates, but are away from both? OK, here are near real-time highlights sent to your mobile device. Nowadays, options are plenty if you want to see a game, but can't make it to the ballpark.

Or are they?

When it comes to catching games on Extra Innings or online through MLB.TV, fans are hit in the head with a scorching foul ball. Every person, no matter where they live, is going to get hit with some form of convoluted and arcane blackout restriction. It's just a matter of degree. Everyone gets popped via national blackouts, and some people get nailed due to local restrictions, in some locations by as many as six teams.

So, when providers such as Cox Communications say, "Catch all of the big league action with MLB Extra Innings on Cox Digital Cable," you better scroll down and read, "Blackout and other restrictions apply. Regular Season and Pennant Race packages may not be available in all areas. Programming subject to change." It isn't false advertisement, but as the saying goes, if it's too good to be true, it probably is.

For the uninitiated, the blackout policy that you may think of--the NFL's--is a far-off dream when compared to MLB's. In the NFL, blackouts occur in a 75-mile radius around the stadium where a game will be played if the game is not sold out 72 hours or more before the start of the game. The concept is that by blacking out games in your local market, you're more apt to purchase a ticket to the game than sit back at home and watch on the tube. Such is how a sports league with a centralized television deal can function.

With MLB, it's a convoluted amalgamation of crisscrossing and overlapping television territories based upon regional sports networks. Attendance doesn't come into play at all. Sold out or not, at some point one of your EI channels will be blacked out.

Let's start with MLB's pure money grab: national exclusivity deals. Every Saturday, from 1:10 PM ET or before 7:05 PM ET, all games are blacked out due to an exclusivity agreement with FOX, which typically broadcasts one game starting at 3:55 Eastern. That means in a six-hour window in which games are being played, six today, you can watch two at most--the Fox game and your local team if it's playing on TV in that window and isn't the Fox game. On a day such as April 5, the Fox blackout means just four games show up on Extra Innings. On Sundays, ESPN holds the rights to night games, so any games that start after 5 p.m. ET are blacked out. In practice, this only affects a handful of games, as almost all Sunday games are played in the daytime. To add more hair-pulling to the mix, TBS is now in the fray. TBS airs 26 Sunday afternoon games this year which are blacked out in local markets--TBS can air an alternate game in those areas, and as many as 13 of any single team. So those of you in Boston and New York may barely be aware of TBS' new arrangement by the end of the season.

On the local level, the insanity goes to new levels. Back in the days when you had rabbit ears on your television set, a local broadcast area was how far the signal traveled over the air. Since there is no centralized broadcast deal, such as the NFL has, with MLB, there are local broadcast deals for each team. When cable came around, Ted Turner figured out that he wasn't stuck just reaching the Atlanta market for Braves games, he could reach anyone in the U.S. who had TBS on their cable system. That started the free-for-all we see today. That's why you, Mr. and Mrs. Butte Montana, are in the "local" broadcast area for the Seattle Mariners. That's why you, baseball fan in Las Vegas, are blacked out on Extra Innings from the Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, Giants, Diamondbacks and Padres when they're playing at home. In parts of Iowa, it's the Royals, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Twins and Brewers. How do you know if you've been hit with a local blackout? Better have an Internet connection and your Zip code handy. For DirecTV subscribers, here's the location for to look up what is available to you for that week (sorry, you can't look up that matchup a month from now, the listing for dates only goes a week from the current day you're looking up).

Now, Mr. Selig, before you call me up, I know you've said you're working on this issue. He is, at least at the local level. At the national level, the money from FOX, ESPN and TBS was worth more than the complaining from consumers. The real reason MLB is addressing the local issue has to do with the upcoming MLB Network, which will launch next season.

Extra Innings had approximately 750,000 subscribers last season, according to the Sports Business Journal. That will be a small fraction of the subscriber base for the MLB Network which will see a staggering 47 million viewers--the largest cable channel launch in history. So, when Selig said a couple of years ago, "I hear more about people who can't get the game, and, yes, I've already told our people we have to do something about it," addressing the blackout policy is a case of self-preservation. Congress hasn't stuck their nose into the blackout policy (yet), but if the noise coming from fans is loud now, it will be earsplitting with the MLB Network coming online.

Here's the deal, though. The national exclusivities will still be in place, and even if the "local" territorial issue is tweaked, it's not going to be enough based on MLB's need for local broadcast deals and the number of games in play. In other words, MLB can't get to the NFL's level, and therefore, the best MLB can do is try and lessen the blow. There will still be arcane blackouts that cause you to scratch your head. There will still be fumbling around to try and figure on who is, or isn't blacked out that day. There will still be that massive national blackout, and when we all get MLB Network (well, everyone that has cable and satellite television), we're going to be seeing some form of blackout policy there as well. Only in baseball would there be a collective head nod to the idea that it's good business practice to restrict consumers' access to your product.

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

Related Content:  MLB Network,  Mlb The Show,  Blackout Policy,  Mlb.tv

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