At the offices of MLB Advanced Media the goal is a simple one — to ensure that baseball in a focal point in our lives, seen and heard everywhere. At the turn of the 21st century, the concept of seeing a baseball game on anything but a television screen seemed unfathomable, but now games are available anywhere from a computer screen to a smartphone on the beach. Thanks to widespread technological advances, it is safe to say that MLB.TV is reaching their objective and should increase its subscriber base next season after word came down in late December that they will be offering a single-team package option, allowing fans of one team to watch all of their 162 games from April through October.
Although MLB.TV has been a rousing success for Major League Baseball in reaching the next generation of fans, its biggest drawback aside from the $129 price point is the inability to watch local teams live due to local blackout restrictions. Since electronic media became a prevalent way of life in the 1950s, team owners have been fearful that fans would cease attending games since it is less convenient and more expensive than tuning in from home. To protect their gate receipts and attendance figures, owners divided the United States map into individual territories claimed by various teams.
As New York fans find themselves blacked out of regional telecasts of the New York Mets and Yankees Yankees, fans in Iowa cannot see six major leagues due to archaic blackout restrictions. To make matters worse, if a local team chooses not to televise their game on a particular day the blackout rules remain in effect preventing fans from watching the opposing broadcast. Although the attendance concerns are no longer valid, the blackout rules stay in place to protect the interest of the regional sports networks which in some cases, such as the YES Network, are worth more than the teams themselves. In the last five seasons, six teams have signed new TV deals, with the St. Louis Cardinals’ and Los Angeles Dodgers’ agreements costing more than $1 billion for the life of the contract.
Recognizing changing viewing habits and the desire of permitting fans to see their local games anywhere, MLB.TV recently has developed plans to introduce a single-team package for the 2016 season. All indications are that the same blackout rules will apply to single-team packages as to the full packages. The 15 teams with Fox-affiliated regional sports networks will allow local fans to stream games, although fans will be likely required to log in with their username and password from their service provider. Individuals who dumped cable in recent years by “cutting the cord” will likely still have to use underground means, such as a VPN or a web proxy, to fake their location and get around local blackouts.
In many respects, agreeing to a single game MLB.TV package is a major stepping stone for first year Commissioner Rob Manfred as the game continues to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century. Like the NFL creating the RedZone channel for cable providers after agreeing with DirecTV to extend its exclusive Sunday Ticket deal, MLB.TV’s single-team package is a compromise that should satisfy the majority of fans while increasing the game’s revenue for future advances. Although the outdated blackout rules and territorial provisions remain in place, the recent steps taken by professional sports leagues hint at a day in the distant future when all games are accessible to the masses free of any barriers.