The connection between an individual and the team they follow passionately is binding in tradition. Adoration begins at a precocious age eager to understand and learn the intricacies and nuances of a complex game. Each victory and defeat takes on optimal importance and impacts perspective. Television and radio serve as the vehicle to convey the images, sounds, and messages of the franchise. Media becomes heavily relied upon and any absence from convention runs deep in the pain and agony of a long-suffering fan. For the past thirteen months, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers have been unable to watch their team’s games as the battle between Time Warner Cable and competitors wages on with no end in sight.
Unlike the National Football League, television revenue for Major League Baseball primarily comes from regional sports networks. While the income from the national television deals between FOX, ESPN, and Turner is equally distributed between all thirty franchises, local TV deals originate from the individual teams themselves, determined by both market and following. The size of each accord creates a heavy disparity in payroll between clubs, only partly corrected by revenue sharing. Local agreements provide the funds for teams to sign free agents and develop into a massive cash cow where the game on the field becomes sidelined from outside economic interests.
Payroll disparity, while addressed in recent editions of the Basic Agreement, remains a contributing factor to the influx of local TV revenue and the overall economic growth within Major League Baseball over the past decade. After the Atlanta Braves signed a modest twenty-year, $400 million agreement with Liberty Media after the 2006 season, other franchises began to asses their financial value and ink deals more lucrative and rewarding with each passing year. Former Texas Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg recognized these possibilities and set the standard for local TV contacts, signing a twenty-year deal worth a whopping $3 billion with Fox Sports Southwest at the end of the 2009 season. The pact went into effect prior to the start of the 2015 season and guarantees the Rangers revenue worth $150 million per season. After signing Albert Pujols during the 2011 offseason, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim agreed to a similar accord with Fox Sports West, providing the funds needed to support a payroll consisting of the likes of Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and Mike Trout.
As multiple teams began to stabilize their financial future, the Dodgers found themselves in a position of flux and uncertainty. Team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt were in the midst of a well-publicized divorce, forcing the club to accept a short-term loan from the Commissioner’s Office. With perception waning and the stranglehold of the team withering from his grasp, McCourt hastily constructed a broadcasting agreement with FOX Sports in 2011, providing the club with an immediate cash infusion of $300 million and a $3 billion for the life of the pact. The terms, though agreed upon by both sides, were vetoed by commissioner Bud Selig, citing the “best interests of baseball” clause. The Los Angeles Dodgers, once a franchise adorned in tradition and pride, had lost their way and faced a rapidly evolving landscape within the game.
Escalating tension between the McCourts and the public, coupled with a lack of resources, left the couple seeking a buyer for the once-proud franchise. In 2012, Guggenheim Partners, a financial services firm operated by Mark Walter, would purchase the Dodgers on the brink of destitution. Headlined by basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, the Dodgers would gradually repair their reputation, acquiring talents such as Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Zack Greinke. The endless financial resources would restore public confidence and propel the club to the highest payroll in baseball. As the existing TV agreement with FOX Sports reached expiration, the Dodgers sought their own network, signing a 25-year, $8.35 billion deal with Time Warner Cable to create SportsNet LA. The station would exclusively broadcast the Dodgers baseball in addition to team-related content and expected to be widely distributed throughout Southern California in time for the 2014 season.
The newly signed agreement proved both lucrative and costly as the team struggled to ensure widespread penetration of the network. Disputes over price, package, and transmission between Time Warner and prospective carriers has led to local blackouts on competing cable systems, which form 70 percent of the local viewing audience. Increasing fees for regional sports programming and insistence by Time Warner for the station to be placed on basic cable continues to reduce the number of available Dodgers games on most cable systems to contests involving the crosstown Angels and the occasional national broadcast that is not blacked out. Despite copious attempts to create an amicable solution for each party involved, Dodgers telecasts courtesy of SportsNet LA have yet to been seen on any system other than Time Warner since network inception in February 2014. Possible merger talks between Tim Warner and Comcast appeared to offer solace, but fears of corporate monopoly in areas not served by Comcast thwarted those plans, leaving fans aghast, embittered, and frustrated by the ongoing blackout.
Frustration can breed desperation and possible alternatives prove less than ideal. MLB.tv, the programming service for out-of-market games by Major League Baseball, provides on demand broadcasts of all 30 clubs, but is subject to blackouts for live telecasts in the home market of participating teams. In other words, a Dodgers fan residing in Southern California cannot watch the team broadcasts live. In an age where social media can unintentionally leak the results of any live event in progress, these restrictions are both archaic and unacceptable and force many to pursue the gray areas of legality to meet their desires.
With the blackout likely extending to a second month of the 2015 season, many Dodgers fans have discovered a way to circumvent local blackout restrictions with a virtual private network or web proxy. While these terms sound foreign to the average baseball consumer, some fans have used a VPN to conceal an IP address and place their computer in an area outside of their local market. Paid services such as Unlocator and UnoTelly, commonly used to enable restricted content on Netflix and Hulu Plus, can also be used for the same function on MLB.tv to remove blackouts. Apple and Google devices can change physical location through a jailbreak or root, enabling access to any game free of restriction. Flash-based websites located outside of the United States broadcast pirated sporting events on a nightly basis, which users can get access to with a single click of a mouse. Though some of these alternatives may sound complex and sinister, they are the only methods to obtain Dodgers baseball within Southern California for individuals unable to watch SportsNet LA.
Yearnings of people reminiscing on simpler times commonly become a topic of conversation during periods of uncertainty. The medium of radio once established both Vin Scully and the Dodgers broadcasts as the gold standard in baseball. The cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum introduced the faithful to Scully through transistor radios. Over-the-air and cable television broadcasts provided the sounds, images, and emotion described on radio for nearly half a century. Corporate interest, instantaneous payoffs, and unrealistic expectations eradicated the connection between the Dodgers and the fans who seldom attend games at Chavez Ravine. Sporadic coverage of SportsNet LA results in an average rating of 51,000 fans per game, conjuring memories of the recently folded CSN Houston, which saw reruns of the Cosby Show out-rate Astros telecasts due to minimal distribution. The Yankee-owned YES Network experienced similar challenges during its formation in 2002, after Cablevision blacked out its customers in response to MSG Network losing broadcast rights to the clubs. The impasse between the two parties parties would last for the entire 2002 season before political protest forced the YES Network onto Cablevision systems in time for the following season.
With no immediate resolution in the near future, Time Warner Cable and the Los Angeles Dodgers may have to devise a legal alterative to view the games, as negotiations remain ongoing. Proposals by the public such as a digital app or a temporary suspension of Major League Baseball blackout restrictions seem infeasible absent of any agreement between cable, satellite and telco companies. Under the cloud of sudden anonymity, the Dodgers have built a quality product on the field, qualifying for postseason play each of the last two seasons, thanks to the efforts of Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Despite slow starts by new additions Yasmani Grandal and Jimmy Rollins and injuries to Puig and Crawford, the Dodgers find themselves in first place at the end of the season’s first month, like the proverbial tree in the forest with nobody around to see it unfold.