The Associated Press reported last week that Major League Baseball may be close to ending parts of its idiotic blackout policy that prevents people living in a team's home market from seeing that team's games. Calling it an incremental step, the head of MLB's online business, Bob Bowman, stated that people would be able to stream the home team's games on mobile devices or through online services such as MLB.TV.
There's just one slight catch, however. For fans to watch the games of hometown teams on their iPads or through MLB.TV, they will have to prove that they have a subscription for a cable or satellite operator that carries that particular team's regional sports network. And if you're thinking, hey this does me no good because I have DirecTV and DirecTV doesn't carry CSN Houston, well, you're right, it doesn't do you any good. And if you live in Las Vegas and wonder why you have to subscribe to the costliest DirecTV bundle option just so you can watch the Padres, well, you're still equally screwed.
"Everyone's trying to solve it," Bowman told the AP. "If our hands were 4 feet apart three or four years ago, they are now 6 inches apart. We're moving in the right way. We continue to talk. The dialogue is professional."
Major League Baseball is arguably the best of the professional sports when it comes to on-line presence and to make games available to fans. MLB.TV is incredibly affordable, and it allows subscribers the option of home and visiting team TV feeds for every game. If you live in Hawaii, and yet are still a fan of the Astros, you can just log on and watch the Astros games every afternoon. Dodgers fans living in Buffalo can go to sleep to the light of a Dodgers game on their iPads.
There's just one problem, if you like the Astros or Dodgers and live in Houston or Los Angeles, then you can't watch the Astros or Dodgers because those games are blacked out in the home team's designated TV territory.
The reason for the blackout is simple: regional sports networks pay millions and millions of dollars for the rights to televise a team's games, and they depend on the dollars that come from advertisers trying to reach a huge group of viewers watching a live event where commercials can't be fast-fowarded through to recoup the money going to the teams. And the teams depend on the dollars provided by the RSNs to better their financial positions: there's no need to worry about fielding a wining product when revenue comes from a monetary figure that stays steady every year as opposed to a revenue stream that can vary widely each year on the basis of the team's performance. Allowing hometown fans to watch games on iPads with a MLB.TV subscription hurts the ratings of the RSN. It hurts the RSNs because advertising rates drop with fewer viewers, and it hurts RSNs because cable/satellite distributors will be less likely to carry a channel with few viewers demanding huge subscription fees that must be paid by all subscribers, not just sports fans. This in turn harms the teams who will subsequently see shrinking media rights fees, harming the team's profit-loss statement
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But this thinking is shortsighted. The Dodgers are a star-packed team with a huge payroll largely funded through the media rights the team receives from its RSN. However, the games are unavailable to most of the Los Angeles television area because providers like DirecTV and Uverse have refused to pay the enormous subscribers fees sought by the RSN to carry the network. Thus the team finds declining fan interest, and by not allowing Los Angeles-area fans who subscribe to MLB.TV to watch the games, the Dodgers lose out on a large subset of fans who are willing to pay for alternative methods to view games.
The situation's worse in Houston, where a new RSN with limited TV access was launched as a new owner was gaining control of a team coming off its worse years in team history and declining attendance. Couple that with the network going into bankruptcy, the team not receiving any media rights fees from the network because of the bankruptcy, zero ratings, and playing in perhaps the toughest division of baseball, and one can't help but wonder if the quest for RSN media rights fees has damaged fan interest for many, many years to come.
MLB can't afford to remain stagnant. Depending on the RSN media rights bubble to not pop and to continue to finance teams is insanity in that it harms efforts to reach younger fans. It's the younger fans who are cutting the cords, giving up on a cable/satellite subscriptions, and watching more and more content online. These are the people MLB needs to reach, and making the games available to those who watch on computers or mobile devices is a smart move. And with the possibility that a judge might find the whole league/team/RSN relationship to be an antitrust violation growing daily, MLB needs to make the next necessary steps toward the future.
Perhaps MLB possibly making the games available on mobile devices to cable/satellite subscribers is a step in the right direction. But it doesn't help people living in designated home markets that don't have access to the team's RSN, and it doesn't help out fans don't subscribe to a cable/satellite distributor. There's got to be a way that teams can profit from the iPad users, it'll just take some smart thinkers to figure it out. And hopefully, MLB doesn't take too long to find those smart thinkers.