Singin' the 'Baseball Blackout Blues'

A little ray of hope might be shining through for fans at their wits' end over baseball's blackout policy, writes John Helyar.

Originally Published: May 15, 2007
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball's TV blackout rules are so dizzyingly complex as to make a tax attorney weep, and the imposition of blackouts is so maddeningly widespread as to make legions of fans scream.

"The blackout sucks," one fan holds in a recent message-board rant about living in a central Pennsylvania area that is claimed as broadcast territory by four teams. "We're blacked out from all Phils, O's, Nats and Pirates games. My cable co [sic] only carries the Phillies games, so each night I miss potentially up to 3 games. If my beloved Mets are playing the Nats or Pirates -- I'm screwed."

It's a common lament among seamheads, many of whom pay dearly for packages such as Extra Innings ($160 a season) only to find that their baseball smorgasbord includes generous helpings of blackouts.

"I've had this problem for SOOOO long I just stopped caring anymore," writes an Astros-deprived fan in Fort Worth, Texas, who claims to have protested with countless -- and, so far, fruitless -- letters to broadcasters, regulators and MLB officials. "As a business major, I find it fascinating that a business is actively refusing to get its product out."

Every sport has blackout rules and fans who grouse about them. But baseball's problematic practices are more exasperating than the others, partly by the sport's nature. It plays twice as many games as the NBA and the NHL, creating more conflicts between national and regional broadcasters. It's a more complicated system than the one employed by the NFL, which handles TV rights centrally and whose games are primarily on Sundays.

TV set
Does a blank screen drive you crazy when your team is playing? You're not alone.
Naturally, MLB took an already-difficult situation and let it deteriorate into chaos in three easy recipe steps: 1. Take an outdated broadcast-territory map; 2. jury-rig a host of arcane preemption rules; and 3. stand by while competing media interests butt heads. Voila! MLB produced a major mess that has a lot of its best customers stewing. Nobody, but nobody, seems to be looking out for them.

Finally, mirabile dictu, MLB is acknowledging the rants and stepping up to the issue, though -- or at least trying to make a start on a fix. At owners meetings in New York later this week, MLB officials will ask teams to review their broadcast territories and, where necessary, revise them.

Baseball's territorial map was drawn for the rabbit-ears era in the 1970s. Its boundaries were set according to the reach of over-the-air broadcast signals, emanating from teams' flagship stations and affiliates. Today, games are mainly carried on regional sports networks (RSNs), which mostly are carried on cable systems. It's a "pay" TV distribution system that doesn't hew to the old territorial patterns of "free" TV.

The result is the perversion of a perfectly fine principle. Territories were created to protect the value of a team's TV rights, guaranteeing that nobody else would broadcast into its market. But when you live in the outer reaches of some clubs' territories, you might as well be in Outer Mongolia. The farther you live from the home team's ballpark, the less likely it is that your cable system will carry the RSN televising most of the team's games.

On a blog for Oakland A's fans last month, Oregon residents complained bitterly about their lot. They're in Oakland's broadcast territory, but their cable systems don't carry Bay Area RSNs. And they're subject to blackouts of A's games -- as well as Giants games -- on Extra Innings and MLBTV.com.

"I [sic] glad MLB is spending so much effort to keep fans from watching their product," writes a Eugene resident. "I wish someone could explain how blocking out someone who lives 8 hours away is beneficial to the sport."

Let it be said that MLB deserves this dripping sarcasm. The blackout problem has grown and festered as the number of MLB national and regional broadcast packages has multiplied. Deal after deal, the parties assert and protect their prerogatives. And as for the fans' interests? Ha! Let them eat Cracker Jack.

At last, it seems, Bud Selig & Co. might be motivated to do something. One, MLB was thoroughly embarrassed on Capitol Hill in March, when its $700 million contract with DirecTV for exclusive rights to Extra Innings was challenged by Sen. John Kerry. MLB's No. 2 exec, Bob DuPuy, was blasted in hearings for making a deal that would force 200,000 cable-system subscribers to switch to satellite if they wanted to keep getting Extra Innings. DuPuy insisted the deal provided "the most benefits to the greatest number of baseball fans." But MLB took a PR hit for being anti-fan with the move, and eventually cut the cable operators in on the deal.

Secondly, MLB is two years away from launching its own MLB Network, to be carried on the same satellite and cable outlets now offering Extra Innings. It'll be a 24/7 proposition along the lines of the NFL Network. To make it work, baseball needs to find equilibrium between national and regional broadcast rights or face even more tangled blackout problems and fan complaints. Extra Innings is a premium service, with about 450,000 subscribers last year. The MLB Network would be on basic satellite and digital cable TV packages, going into 40 million homes right off the bat.

At this week's owners meeting, MLB's central office will push for clubs to reexamine -- and, as necessary, redefine -- their broadcast territories. MLB is mum on the specifics, but Selig's broadcasts execs are expected to take a "use it or lose" approach when they push the reforms. They want to give clubs a year to justify their current broadcast territories, based on where their games are actually available or where they have a reasonable prospect of becoming available. If Oakland has no justification for continuing to stake a claim to Oregon, for example, then it's out of Oregon. The territorial map would be redrawn according to current digital-age realities.

This will require owner approval, however, and it's easy to see a number of owners balking. They bought franchises with the understanding that they came with these territories. The owners also, in some cases, are financially joined at the hip with RSNs. The Red Sox, Yankees and Mets have huge stakes in the hugely valuable NESN, YES and SNY networks, respectively. Changes that help national packages like Extra Innings by easing blackout rules, potentially harm the interests of RSNs.

The RSNs already are unhappy with some arrangements, such as FOX holding exclusive broadcast rights on Saturdays until 7 p.m. That enhances its Game of the Week ratings, but requires that everyone else schedule around FOX.

"Having run an RSN, I see all these broadcast rights of the FOXes and ESPNs eroding the RSNs," says John Claiborne, a former executive with NESN and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which was created by the Orioles.

So blackout-plagued fans have every right to remain skeptical that anything will change soon. Even if there's a will, there's no quick way to change a system that's more confusing than the balk rule.

You want quirks? You want irks? Try being a Mets fan in central Connecticut. Your cable company doesn't carry SNY, and there's no end of other ways to miss the Amazins'. Because you live in their broadcast territory, Mets games are blacked out on Extra Innings. So are their games on ESPN, since the Worldwide Leader has to skirt the home markets of the opposing teams (except for Sunday nights). Try catching their games against the Braves on TBS, even when they're being played hundreds of miles away in Atlanta: same result, same reason.

Live in an area claimed by multiple teams and you're particularly blackout-prone. Nevada, for example, is in six teams' broadcast territory. The best odds you'll get in Vegas on a nightly basis are on multiple blackouts for Extra Innings subscribers.

Online forums on blackouts are virtual wailing walls. Consider just one thread from one bunch of disgruntled DirecTV customers last week. There was the Twins fan in LaCrosse, Wis., bemoaning unjust blackouts of Minnesota games. There was a Chicagoan opining, "The blackout rules and setup is so freaking messed up and complicated … it makes TAXES look easy." There was a gent from Fort Worth, Texas, offering tips on how to game the system and circumvent blackouts, since it's so obviously fruitless to complain about them.

And another Texan asking the key question: "Can anyone think of a good or service other than MLB, where customers chase a vendor around with $, yet the vendor goes to such great lengths to restrict the distribution of its own product?"

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."