Baseball has had an uneasy relationship with the media since the early days of radio. Game broadcasts started on an irregular basis in the early 1920s. By the 1930s, games regularly appeared on the air, but teams banned broadcasts of away games. The New York teams blocked all broadcasts until the late 1930s, fearing that radio would reduce attendance at games.
Accommodation with television followed a similar pattern of hesitant acceptance. Sources place the first TV broadcast of a major league baseball game as early as 1939, yet regular national coverage didn’t begin until 1953. Even then, concerns about negative effects on attendance led MLB to block broadcasts within 50 miles of any ballpark.
Blackouts have been a recurring theme. As broadcasters offered increasingly larger payouts, the emphasis shifted from protecting in-stadium attendance to protecting broadcast exclusivity. Today, most games are carried on regional sports networks, whose areas of coverage are contractually defined to the inch. Since satellite and, in some cases, cable carry multiple regional networks, MLB requires the carriers to black out out-of-market games to protect the local market’s exclusive rights.
As an example, suppose a satellite subscriber in Boston has purchased a plan that includes all of the sports networks. The New England Sports Network has exclusive rights to the Boston Red Sox. That means that any other network will be blacked out when the Red Sox are playing. Our hypothetical fan, who purchased the all-networks plan so he could follow, say, the LA Dodgers will have to watch the Dodgers/Red Sox games on NESW, whether the game is in Boston or LA. If NESW isn’t carrying the game, the fan won’t be able to watch it at all, because the LA network will still be blacked out to protect NESW’s Red Sox monopoly.
MLB has been widely lauded for quickly catching on to the possibilities of the Internet as a forum for broadcasts. They’ve also been widely panned for extending their blackout policies to the Internet. The MLB.TV package allows fans to view broadcasts on the Web, mobile apps, game consoles, and pretty much every other gadget capable of displaying video. It not only carries the same local blackout policy to the Internet, but extends it.
Suppose our Boston-based Dodgers fan subscribes to MLB.TV so he can watch games on his iPhone while traveling. He’s on a business trip to Sacramento while his Dodgers are playing an inter-league game at home against the Oakland As. Our poor fan won’t be able to watch the game because the A’s broadcast region includes Sacramento. If he’s lucky, his hotel will offer the A’s broadcast, and he can watch the game, albeit without the services of the Dodger’s legendary broadcaster Vin Scully. Poor fellow!
Still, it could be worse. Next time he takes a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, he’ll be lucky if he can see the Dodgers at all. There are no MLB teams in the entire state of Iowa, but six teams have broadcast rights–the Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, Twins, Royals, and Brewers–not that local cable providers in Iowa carry any of those teams, let alone all of them. But if the Dodgers are playing one of those six teams, our guy is out of luck.
Even when our poor fan isn’t blacked out of watching his favorite team, it’s still not all sunshine and roses. MLB.TV’s rights to rebroadcast games online doesn’t include rights to show the commercials. No, that doesn’t mean that the online broadcasts are commercial-free. MLB.TV supplies their own commercials. Remember, MLB and the individual teams are being very well paid by the networks for the rights to televise the games. Then, individual viewers pay for MLB.TV. But since they can’t show the networks’ commercials, MLB supplements their income further by selling commercial time on MLB.TV.
Unfortunately for our loyal Dodger fan, there are fewer than ten advertisers. If you don’t count MLB itself, for most of the season, there are no more than six. And each advertiser has one commercial.
Figure that there are twenty to twenty-five commercial breaks in a typical game (one after each half inning, as well as one each time a relief pitcher comes in; there may also be an occasional break due to an on-field injury). That means the viewer will be traumatized by nearly two dozen airings of each commercial every game he watches.
I’m only speaking for myself here, but how can this be a positive tactic for the advertisers? Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but after three-quarters of a season, I have sworn a binding oath that I will not fly on United Airlines, I will never shampoo with Head and Shoulders, never invest with Edward Jones, and never, ever, every buy a Land Rover*. I can’t be the only one who feels this way, can I?
* I’m still undecided about MasterCard. On the one hand, their commercial is just as annoying as all the others, and it’s repeated just as often. On the other hand, the commercial does promote the card in the context of their financial contribution to cancer research through Stand Up To Cancer. I’m sure MasterCard’s motives are just as basely commercial as any of the other advertisers, but at least they’re also promoting a worthwhile cause. I haven’t yet chopped up the one MasterCard I have, but it gets a little harder every time I see that commercial.
Can we hope for a more fan-friendly policy in the future, with fewer blackouts and less annoying commercials?
Bud Selig is retiring in January. His just-elected successor, Rob Manfred, has been Bud’s right-hand man for years. That could mean a continuation of policies already in place, including those related to MLB’s media presence, or it could mean major changes as Manfred moves to establish his influence, independent of Selig’s legacy. Manfred has a mandate to increase baseball’s appeal to a younger, presumably more Internet-friendly, demographic, but he’s also well aware that TV is probably the source of most of MLB’s profit. Keeping the networks happy has to be high on the team owners’ list of priorities, and that means it’s going to be high on Manfred’s list as well.
The blackout policy is under legal fire. Fans filed suit in 2012 against the blackout policy, charging that it violates federal antitrust laws. MLB has an exemption from many of the antitrust laws, but the extent of the exemption is up for grabs in several suits.
Change could be coming. Stay tuned–unless the festivities are blacked out in your area.