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.”
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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.
“I mean, I can do it and I’m computer-savvy enough to be able to figure that out,” he admits. “Not all of MLB’s clients are going to want to do that.” Ultimately, Bates sees the whole online blackout issue as MLB’s continuing attempt to strong-arm consumers into getting cable: “It’s about making sure that the regional sports networks are protected. And it’s really frustrating.”
Rob Manfred, who took over as MLB commissioner this past January, has at least publicly acknowledged the growing frustration with in-market blackouts and has pledged to work with the RSNs to alleviate the issue, perhaps even by season’s end. Never mind that Manfred has also deemed the streaming blackouts “integral to the economics of the game” and “a foundation of the very structure of the league,” but addressing this problem in any meaningful way by October feels like a wholly unrealistic timetable to work out the myriad contractual wrinkles that will need to be smoothed over for the status quo to be changed. In the meantime, MLB will continue to alienate fans – mostly younger ones – who are accustomed to a world of on-the-go streaming.
There’s another hope, perhaps. A court case called Garber v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball is a class-action suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by four fans and casts a wide net: MLB, the Commissioner’s Office, MLB Advanced Media (the video-streaming behemoth powering all this), Comcast, DirecTV, nine teams and seven RSNs are all named as co-defendants. The suit alleges that MLB and other parties have violated multiple sections of the Sherman Antitrust Act and acted to “eliminate competition in the distribution of games over the Internet and television.” If the suit is successful, it could effectively kill blackouts on in-market streaming. The problem is that the suit was filed back in May 2012 and has made only agonizingly slow progress through the courts. And of course, MLB could likely settle the suit any time it so chooses (a spokesperson for MLB declined to comment on the suit). No one would be the wiser and nothing would change.
But the in-market prohibition on streaming is so out of touch for our times that it’s downright laughable. A Mets fan on the subway out of Manhattan can’t stream the game on his way home. Giants fans in San Francisco who want some distraction during a late night at work better hope the office has a TV, because forget about pulling out the iPad. We’ve morphed into a culture where we expect every digital convenience to be available within reason, and when your entire business model hinges on asking fans to plunk down $130 for the right to most likely not be able to watch their favorite team where and when they want, that makes for a pretty bad business model. Besides, imagine the uptick in revenue if all those Mets and Yankees fans in New York state (and Connecticut, northeast Pennsylvania and central New Jersey) knew that their subscription would allow them to stream every game. Or Cubs fans in Chicago. Or Marlins fans in – anyway, you get the point.
For now, Bates is resolute in his stand against MLB. Until he no longer can, the games will keep on streaming through his nonexistent Canadian satellite office. “I’m OK because I can get around it,” he says. “The principle really bothers me, and I’m not going to get over that.” Bates maintains he will never sign up for cable again, so long as he has any choice in the matter.
“I’ll survive,” he says, “but I think the issue is an important one for a lot of fans – and one many will continue to struggle with.”