It’s 2021 and thanks to technology we have access to nearly anything that we can dream of at the touch of a button from a small device that we carry in our purses and our pockets. For the last 20 years Major League Baseball has offered up the ability to watch out of market games to fans through MLB.tv. It’s truly a great service, and it actually began the whole streaming content thing a decade before anyone else even tried it. It was so far ahead of the game at one point that MLB Advanced Media was hosting other companies streams because they were the only place that had the understanding and capacity to do it.
But there was a problem with MLB.tv, too. It had blackouts if you were in a teams market. In some places that is a far bigger issue than others. In Cincinnati you can’t stream Cincinnati Reds games through MLB.tv without jumping through questionable hoops that aren’t technically illegal, but are a violation of the user terms and agreement. The reason for that has always been that the Reds are available to you in the greater Cincinnati area through your cable or satellite provider who carries your regional sports network.
Major League Baseball wants those cable and satellite companies to carry the regional sports network because they make tens and hundreds of millions of dollars per year from those companies for the broadcast rights to the games. The only way that works out for the regional spots network is if they can get all of the subscribers to these cable and satellite packages to pay the carriage fee for that channel, whether they watch it or not. A decade ago nearly everyone had a cable or satellite and it was only an issue for people in Iowa, who were (and still are) blacked out of six teams despite there not being an actual Major League Baseball team in the state of Iowa. By-and-large if you had a pay-for-television service you had access to the channel that broadcasted your games you were looking for.
In the last five years or so a lot of that has changed. More and more streaming services became available that were defacto cable companies, but were cheaper and had fewer channels. They were a way to save customers some money from bloated packages of 250 channels that only featured 10 that your family actually watched.
But the money saved with those things has slowly, but surely, eroded away. SlingTV first came out and it was $25 for a solid channel selection and for $5 more you could add your regional sports network. That beat just about any and all package deals that any cable company could offer even if you also got your internet service from them. Playstation Vue (also no longer exists), Youtube TV, Hulu Live, and several others have also popped up. They also all began with lower price points that made things make sense if you switched to their services.
Fast forward to today and YoutubeTV starts at $65 a month. Hulu Live also starts at $65 a month. SlingTV starts at $35 a month. Right now none of those things come with Bally Sports (whatever city), meaning that about 20 teams regional sports networks aren’t available if you have these services. When you toss in that you are probably paying $60-70 for your internet service, you’re looking at $130 for internet and cable that doesn’t provide you the ability to watch your baseball team play their games. Most cable companies will provide a bundle for that price that includes your regional sports network. We are at a point where you probably aren’t saving any money “cutting the cord”, especially if your cable company provides an app that you can use and don’t need all of their “boxes” that they like to include for each television at $5 a pop.
But one thing that these “streaming wars”, so to speak, have led to is that more than enough people have decided that they can go without having the ability to watch the games. Radio is free (as long as you have a radio), and this year at least in the greater Cincinnati area, you can also now stream the games through iheartradio on your smart devices. Some have even found less ethical and borderline illegal ways to watch the games via the internet because they still want to watch the games but they just aren’t offered the ability on their platform of choice.
That’s bad news for both Major League Baseball and for the regional sports networks. Without having access to their numbers, it’s tough to say exactly how long they can eat the money from not lowering their price to places like Hulu or Youtubetv to be on those services. For Major League Baseball, it’s keeping people from fully enjoying their product, and finding that maybe they can be ok with less baseball in their life. It eventually means less money for them, too. While most TV deals are still on the books for the next decade and that money is coming in unless their regional sports network goes out of business, many of the teams are also partial owners of these networks and that might take a hit in the near term due to less advertising dollars and of course, less carriage fee dollars since they aren’t in nearly as many homes.
In the long run it is also costing Major League Baseball plenty of money if there aren’t as many fans in the next generation because they simply didn’t have access to the games as easily as the generation before them did.
It’s understandable if within, say, 90 miles of a city that has a Major League Baseball team there is a blackout rule for MLB.tv. If you are that close to the city then whoever your regional sports network is, they are almost guaranteed to be offered on a cable/streaming package that is available to you. Sure, if might not be on Hulu or YoutubeTV, but you can probably get it through traditional cable or satellite. It is an option available for you, even if you don’t necessarily want to take that option. I would prefer Ted Lasso to be on Netflix, but it’s not. But I wanted to watch it so I signed up for Apple TV in order to see it. Same principal.
But the problem really arises when you don’t have the option to watch your favorite team play. Ian Happ spoke about this on Thursday, noting that his mom couldn’t watch the Cubs opening series against Pittsburgh because she lived in Columbus, Ohio and was blacked on via MLB.tv.
Ian Happ's mother could not watch the Cubs opening weekend series because of https://t.co/Kfh1BdDlca blackout rules.
Ian has thoughts on how the blackout rules effect fans! pic.twitter.com/uL9FLckVKo
— The Compound (@thecompoundpod) April 9, 2021
Neither regional sports network that carries the game (the Cubs RSN or the Pirates RSN) is available in Columbus, Ohio on any package. Yet she still couldn’t watch the game through MLB.tv. When there is literally not an option aside from moving to another area of the country, then your rules are broken and need to be fixed.
The solution feels rather simple to me: If a game is not available where you live on a service that is available to you (as in you could purchase it from Cable Company XYZ – not just, it’s not available on YoutubeTV or whatever), then it should be watchable on MLB.tv. This would be a big step in the right direction in many places where a team is considered “in market”, but isn’t really. Places like Nashville, Tennessee. That’s the Reds market. But they don’t get Bally Sports Ohio, which carries all of the non-national broadcasts. Their Bally Sports only carries some of the Reds games. But they are blacked out of all of the Reds games on MLB.tv. Fans in Nashville should have the option to watch all games not available through Bally Sports in Nashville through MLB.tv.
The fans are willing to pay money to watch the games. Stop making it so that they just aren’t given the option. And while you’re at it – since most teams have a partial ownership stake in Bally Sports – apply some pressure to get them on more carriers. Dish Network is now two years in to not having Fox Sports/Bally Sports on their service. So much of this stuff is how baseball has been operating for a while now – short term thinking about maximizing profits over long term gains where the profit is a slower drip.
The first version of this article indicated that SlingTV no longer existed. It definitely still exists and has been corrected.