Last month, the National Football League decided to suspend – at least for a season – its antiquated policy on home attendance and local TV blackouts. Now, as Major League Baseball begins another season in earnest, it’s time for that sport to play ball in the 21st century.
Today, millions of baseball fans will be unable to watch their favorite team on their smartphones, tablets or even their televisions because of MLB’s blackout policy, which was conceived more than four decades ago, when most people needed to fiddle with over-the-air antennas to see players clearly.
The policy, which is about 800 words, essentially denies fans the ability to watch their region’s home teams unless they’re doing so through cable or satellite programming. Why? In the days before cable TV, baseball decided it wasn’t a good idea if teams beamed their games into other teams’ home markets. So the league drew up a map of “home territories” for each team.
But now, most teams have moved their broadcasts to regional sports networks on cable – which means they no longer beam an over-the-air broadcast throughout their “territory.” And now, baseball also sells internet packages like MLB.tv, which offer fans the broadcasts of most every game each day.
Still, the policy is largely the same. And that home territory map? It has enough gerrymandering to make N.C.’s 12th congressional district blush. In Charlotte, if you’re a baseball fan who watches games on MLB.tv, you’re blacked out of games involving the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. Incredibly, Charlotte also is considered part of the home territory for the Cincinnati Reds.
Be thankful you’re not living in Iowa or Las Vegas, each of which are part of six teams’ home territories.
MLB officials know this is no way to treat your fans. Former commissioner Bud Selig barked about the blackout map almost a decade ago. Last August, MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman floated the idea that if you subscribe to MLB.tv, you should be able to watch your home team’s games on your phone or tablet if you also have a cable subscription. That’s so 2005.
What will it take for real change? MLB and MLB Advanced are facing a class action lawsuit brought by fans who are fed up with losing access to a chunk of games. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected MLB’s attempt to get out of the lawsuit using its federal antitrust exemption.
A little political pressure wouldn’t hurt, either. This year the NFL suspended blackout rules requiring that home games must be sold out 72 hours before kickoff. Lawmakers had been speaking out against the policy in recent years, and last fall, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated its sports blackout rules that had offered government cover to the NFL’s policy.
In making that call, the FCC noted that NFL teams no longer relied on ticket sales as their primary source of revenue, and the league hardly needed financial protection anymore.
In other words, times have changed. It’s time for Major League Baseball to acknowledge it.