WTF MLB? Baseball Strikes Out With Its Streaming Policies
For Mike Bates, a move from Madison, Wisconsin, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last October was only supposed to help facilitate a reasonable commute to his new day job at the University of Iowa. His off-hours gig, as an editor and contributor to SBNation’s MLB Daily Dish baseball blog, shouldn’t really have been all that negatively impacted.
But when winter turned to Spring Training and then Opening Day, Bates had to come to grips with a new reality: he was now living in what amounted to a baseball dead zone. As a Minnesota Twins fan in Wisconsin, the only team blacked out to him on his computer or mobile device was the Milwaukee Brewers. Makes sense, no big deal. But thanks to MLB’s arcane system that allows teams to decide which markets fall under their “home television territory” and are therefore prohibited from streaming MLB.TV games, the results often look like the goofy after-effects of political gerrymandering run amok. But the big losers, always, are Iowans.
The baseline logic behind online blackouts is simply this: Why should a consumer be allowed to stream a game online when they live in a place where they could either watch the game on cable TV or actually, you know, go to the stadium? There’s at least a grain of sanity to this thinking. The problem here is that not only are more and more people (such as Bates) cutting cable out of their lives, but that the system that allows teams to pick their broadcast territory is beyond all reasonable logic. Las Vegas, for example, is claimed by six teams, from the Bay Area (420 miles away) to Los Angeles (231 miles) to San Diego (258 miles) to Phoenix (256 miles). Hawaii is even worse, with all five California teams blacked out, despite some 2,400 miles of ocean in between. At least in Anchorage, you only have to live without the Seattle Mariners, a mere 1,414 miles away. (You can look up your own ZIP code here, if you dare.)
As it so happens, Iowa – in what is surely the first time this comparison has ever been made – is the Las Vegas of the Midwest. The entire state is claimed by six MLB teams, and not a single MLB stadium is within 240 miles of Bates’ home. “They got us surrounded,” he says. “We’ve got St. Louis and Kansas City to the south and west, there’s the Twins up north, the Brewers to the northeast and then the Cubs and White Sox out east. They’ve got us boxed in.”
Bates makes it sound like a virtual siege, but that’s not far off. There is literally no legal recourse or petition available to customers in Iowa or anywhere else for that matter. What makes the whole endeavor so much more absurd is that in no part of Iowa can anyone actually get all six teams available through regional sports networks (RSNs) on a single cable plan. There is always some part of Iowa where MLB’s blackout logic fails, and Bates is at the mercy of MLB and the RSNs.
Every day, Bates tweets out an update on his season-long running total as to how many of his MLB.TV games have been blacked out. Now two-plus months into the season, the number has stabilized at close to 33 percent, and Bates expects that numbers to hold steady all the way to October. “I’m paying exactly the same price as everyone else,” he says, referring to the annual $129.99 MLB.TV subscription cost, “for roughly two-thirds of the service, which is really ridiculous.”
If you actually read MLB’s blackout policy FAQ, it’s chock full of great and baffling tidbits. For example, all San Francisco and Oakland games are blacked out in Guam – a full 5,796 miles away as the crow flies, except the crow would collapse from exhaustion and drown in the Pacific before it ever got there. Oh, and Canada’s not exempt from this, either. MLB teams can claim broadcast territory across our northern international borders. (Mexico, you’re cool.) And play-in games to help determine tiebreakers at season’s end are subject to national online blackouts, so better get your butt in front of a TV for that.
For now, Bates has a workaround that will be familiar to anyone who, for example, wanted to stream the official BBC feeds stateside during the London Olympics. “I’ve been watching games from Canada,” he says, referring to whatever IP-masking client he uses that tricks MLB’s IP trackers into thinking he’s definitely not in Iowa anymore. It’s a solution that only applies to laptops and PCs – MLB’s At Bat mobile app relies on more than just your IP address and taps into GPS coordinates, a much more difficult thing to mask – but for now, it’s a workaround that allows Bates to stream Twins games with no issue.
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