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The MLB’s Blackout Problem

Watching your favorite team’s 2020 opening day may be impossible due to the MLB’s blackout rules, which continue to frustrate cord cutters

Hey MLB.tv and Apple, what kind of shit is this?!? #blackout by Mike Wren is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The MLB’s Blackout Problem


Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Whether you were ready or not, the 2020 MLB season kicked off on Thursday, July 23rd. And if you lived out of state, watching your favorite team’s opening day might have been be impossible due to the league’s blackout rules.

First and foremost, MLB does not have a let’s-get-blackout-from-drinking problem (as far as I know). What the league does have is an old school set of rules that prevent fans from watching games based on their address. Not surprisingly, this isn’t great for a league in need of positive fan engagement.

Even more frustrating is the fact that the league will enforce the blackout rules in 2020 despite fans quarantining through the COVID-19 pandemic. And fans seem to have picked up on the insanity of that. Go search twitter for “mlb blackout” and see what I mean.

So, the league will have more fans than ever before turning to streaming options to watch in 2020.

Should be easy to do right?

Wrong.

How Do MLB Blackouts Work?

Despite the general consensus, the commissioner of the league, Rob Manfred, cannot magically fix the blackout problem. He can’t save the 2020 season from blackouts by simply signing some mandate. It isn’t that easy, although many still think it is. Yes, even Forbes got it wrong:

If Manfred is sincere in his comments about baseball being a part of the healing process, the league should lift its arcane blackout policy for 2020. 

Maury Brown, Forbes.com
Television by Daily Invention is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Here’s how to think about it. As a league, MLB can sell the rights to nationally broadcast games to networks like Fox, ESPN, TBS, etc. But what they can’t do is meddle with local broadcasting agreements. These are outside the league’s control since they are set up by each team.

Yes, you read that right. Each MLB team negotiates and owns its own local broadcast setup with a regional sports network (RSN).

Some teams have set up a unique partnership, like the New England Sports Network (NESN), which only broadcasts the Red Sox, and Spectrum Sports, which only broadcasts the LA Dodgers. But this ecosystem has also resulted in a company like Fox Sports Networks (FSN) carrying 14 teams.

Blackouts Protect Revenue, Not Fan Attendance

Because of these lucrative partnerships, which are estimated to generate $2.1 billion in 2020, teams do everything they can to ensure the RSN’s are happy. They don’t want the RSN to lose viewers to in-network competition from new fangled streaming services. Because the regional networks will force the teams back to the table to devalue the deal if they feel it is compromised.

This brings us to the biggest misconception about MLB blackouts. Teams are not blacking out games to make you go to the stadium, which the NFL is famous for. They are doing it to ensure they don’t piss off the RSN’s, which we have established are their cash cows.

While short sighted, the league has opted for revenue generation now vs. engaging with youthful cord cutters to generate revenue later. They’re more interested in the $239 million in 2020 revenue that the Dodger’s deal with Spectrum generates. Teams looked at the issue of reaching new fans, shrugged, and said, “that is future me’s problem.” A strategy that I’m sure will work extremely well. “Money over everything” – A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie Rob Manfred & the MLB owners.

Will You Be Personally Victimized by MLB’s Rules?

If you cut cable and can’t easily access your team’s RSN, you’ll need to stream games online. But how can you figure out if you’re impacted by the blackout rules? Glad you asked! Here is a super simple map that should clear things up for you:

Lol, just kidding. That map looks like someone spent their quarantine coloring a map of the US with crayons while popping Adderall and chugging coffee. Classic MLB, making something extremely confusing that should be pretty straightforward (in-game replays, anyone?).

If you, like most people, can’t figure out what that map means for you, MLB TV offers a handy tool. Just enter your zip code and you’ll learn what blackout district(s) you’re in based on your zip code. And if you live in Iowa, I’m so sorry.

Blackout restrictions for for MLBTV under zip code 52245 in Iowa resulting in inability to watch Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals.
52245: A zip code in Iowa City

Can Streaming Solve This?

As we all know, millions of Americans are cutting cable and turning to streaming services. In fact, according to FastCompany, from February ’19 to February ’20, paid TV subscriptions dropped by 2.7 million! Take that, Comcast.

Unfortunately, MLB doesn’t care. Yes, they offer MLB TV as a stand-alone streaming option for fans that want to watch their favorite team, but can’t access their desired RSN. Unfortunately, MLB TV comes with its own set of rules:

…all live games will be blacked out in each applicable Club’s home television territory…

– Home television territory blackout restrictions apply regardless of whether a Club is home or away and regardless of whether or not a game is televised in a Club’s home television territory.

– U.S Clubs may be subject to blackout outside of the United States based on their home television territory as determine by Major League Baseball.

– All live San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics games will be blacked out in the U.S. territory of Guam.

MLB.com/live-stream-games/help-center/blackout-policy

A couple things here. First, who on earth did Guam piss off in MLB’s front office? Secondly, did you catch that part about the home or away team? To recap, if your team plays in your blackout zone as the visiting team, you can’t watch on MLB TV. Awesome! I’ll just go buy cable and admit defeat to 2020.

What is the Future of MLB Blackouts?

It is hard to imagine that the league hasn’t noticed the public outcry about the blackouts. But after making a record $10.7 billion in 2019, I doubt much will change. The league will keep prioritizing broadcast deals, having just extended their deal with FOX through 2028 valued at $5.1 billion.

But, despite the record breaking revenue, the league is losing fans. In 2012 total attendance was roughly 74,900,000, but in 2019 that number dropped 9% to 68,500,000. And all the broadcast deals in the world won’t mean a thing without fans. And getting new fans is something owners should be a wee bit concerned about:

  • According to a 2018 poll by Gallup, only 9% of Americans list baseball as their favorite sport, “the lowest percentage for the sport since Gallup first asked the question in 1937”
  • Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal found the average age of a national television MLB broadcast viewer is 57-years-old
  • The New York Times reported on MLB’s inability to market its young stars writing, “91 percent of Americans have heard of LeBron James and 88 percent have heard of Tom Brady, but only 43 percent have heard of Mike Trout

So here’s hoping MLB’s plan to end blackouts has some truth behind it. Or else the league will be relegated to the past, like oh so many other “too-big-to-fail” entities before it.

Mark was raised outside of Boston, so his favorite socks are red and the only Giants he'll ever like are the little ones. He is a michelada advocate and a big fan of 8 game parlays that never work. He has been writing about sports since starting his own blog in 2014, Don't Think Just Throw, and is excited to be a part of The Turf.

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