The Los Angeles Dodgers have the richest local TV deal in baseball – and the strangest.
The team receives around $200 million a year to keep its games from being televised to the majority of its local fans. OK, that’s not really the intent. But that has been the effect.
Spectrum SportsNet LA is heading into its sixth season as the exclusive home of the Dodgers. By now being unable to see Dodgers games on TV in Southern California has become a bit of a tradition. Actually, it is the return of a tradition, as I will explain later.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has been talking for a couple years about somehow solving this problem. Don’t expect a resolution this offseason, though, because at this point there is no easy solution.
It is telling that as the Chicago Cubs attempt to create a TV network with the help of Sinclair Broadcasting, they want to avoid the most lucrative version of an MLB team-owned network. Instead the Cubs want to emulate the New York Yankees. It is also telling that, for once, the Yankees are not the poster boys for avarice and greed.
Around 1.5 million of the Los Angeles TV market’s 5.6 million households get SportsNet LA.
The games are only available to Spectrum cable TV subscribers. The games are not carried by DirectTV or Dish. Dodgers games were not available through streaming in any form – even for Spectrum subscribers – through last season. If you live in the Los Angeles TV market, or other TV markets that Dodgers claim as home markets, such as Las Vegas, you can not get the games through the MLB.com TV package or through the MLB Extra Innings package.
A better situation
Now, in fairness to the Dodgers and Spectrum TV, who split ownership of the channel 50/50, the games are more widely available than they were in 2014 and 2015.
When the channel first started, it was only available to Time Warner Cable subscribers in the Los Angeles area and to Bright House subscribers in Bakersfield. Time Warner covered only a limited area of the five counties that make up the Los Angeles TV market.
Charter Communications, the other big cable TV player in the Los Angeles area, acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House and created the Spectrum brand in 2016. Now the channel is available through the vast majority of the market (more than 90 percent of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counites and more than 70 percent of Orange County).
If you live in the service area, you have to choose to subscribe to Spectrum cable instead of Direct TV, Dish, Sling, Hulu or nothing. But you can make that choice. Before the middle of the 2016 season, if you lived in one of the huge swaths that didn’t have access to Time Warner Cable, you were out of luck.
Time Warner Cable started the channel with the Dodgers. Time Warner Cable was expecting to sell to multichannel operators (that is the industry term for cable and satellite providers) reportedly for around $4.95 per month per subscriber. By way of comparison, the ESPN family of channels were going for $7.21 a month and MLB Network was going for about 30 cents per month in 2017.
Time Warner Cable also wanted to require the multichannel operators to carry the Dodgers channel part of the basic package. That way Time Warner Cable could charge for all subscribers, not just big fans who bought a sports-premium upgrade.
The carriage-fee-as-the-major-source-of-revenue was pioneered by ESPN, and cable and satellite providers hate it. But they hadn’t been able to hold out against ESPN. They haven’t had much luck with regional sports networks that carry local pro teams, either. While most people watch little or no sports, enough do, or want to be able to, that multichannel operators have had to cough up big bucks and pass on the cost to all their subscribers.
This time, everyone held out, and guess what? There were not that many cancellations – at least as far as the companies could tell in an era when customers are switching to alternative ways of getting programming.
Time Warner lowered the price by a buck. Still no takers.
When Charter acquired Time Warner Cable, it tried to sell the service to Dish and DirectTV under similar terms. Again the answer was no.
Dish and DirectTV seem to have decided they would lose more subscribers with a price hike to accommodate Dodgers fans than they would gain by adding the games.
No. 1 cable show in the summer
The Dodgers have made a few games available on over-the-air TV the past two seasons – to high ratings.
There is definitely an audience. Even with the limited availability of Dodgers games, their broadcasts were viewed by 103,000 households on average, significantly more than the Angels. The Dodgers were the top cable program in LA last summer, according to Forbes’ Murray Brown.
The commissioner would like to tap into that audience in his efforts to grow the game. He is worried that a generation of Angelenos seldom exposed to the Dodgers on TV won’t become fans.
But Charter has paid handsomely for the rights to these games. It is a selling point for Charter’s service in an increasingly difficult environment for cable TV. Unless MLB is willing to subsidize the carriage fees, I don’t see how Manfred can make the games available to more viewers.
Pioneers of the tube
The Dodgers have had an unusual relationship with TV through the decades. The first televised MLB game – actually a doubleheader – was the Dodgers hosting the Cincinnati Reds in in Brooklyn. The broadcast was part of an experiment showcasing TV for the 1939 World’s Fair.
By the early 1950s, the Dodgers were televising all their home games and about a quarter of their road games on WOR in New York. The hundreds of thousands of dollars the team received each season from the TV station kept the Dodgers profitable, even as attendance dipped. But owner Walter O’Malley felt that attendance drop was due in part to showing all those home games on TV. Unlike radio, which whetted fans’ appetite, TV replaced the need to go to ballpark, O’Malley felt.
O’Malley had idea of creating a pay-per-game TV service.
In 1957 a company called Skiatron TV said it had the technology to bring O’Malley’s idea to life. O’Malley and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham began talking in the press of the possibilities.
New York politicians quickly stood up for the public’s right to free games on TV. They banned any pay TV franchise in the city. As it turned out, it was much ado about nothing. Skiatron had neither the technology nor the financial wherewithal to make the pay-per-game subscription a reality.
TV out West
The Giants and Dodgers moved to California for the 1958 season. Both teams severely limited the number of games on local TV. The Dodgers televised road games against the Giants and vice versa. And the teams still liked the pay-per-game subscription idea.
In 1964 the Giants and Dodgers were ready to try the pay experiment with a company called Subscription Television. A test game was shown on July 17, available to 2,500 homes in a four-square-mile area of Los Angeles. Viewers paid $1.50.
But movie theater owners backed an anti-pay-TV initiative, and California voters passed it in November 1964.
The Dodgers were slow to expand their slate of televised games on free TV and basic cable. In 1973 the Dodgers added Sunday road games to their telecast schedule. Walter O’Malley died in 1979. His son Peter took over the team. But he seemed to have inherited the old man’s wariness for local TV – at least the free version.
Pay-per-view Part II
In 1985, the Dodgers brought back the pay-per-game concept, making 20 home games available for $6 apiece or $85 for the whole package.
Before the 1988 season, the Dodgers and the California Angels joined a regional sports network, the Z Network. Thirty-five Dodgers home games were on TV that season.
The Z Network morphed into Sports Channel LA, a premium channel. Sports Channel LA went belly up after the 1992 season. The Dodgers had no cable partner for four seasons. KTLA showed about a third of the Dodgers games, with fewer than a dozen home games.
By this time many teams were showing most or even all their games on TV in their local market, usually in a combination of a local TV station and a regional sports network.
In 1997 the Dodgers went all in, showing almost every game on Fox Sports West 2. The O’Malley family sold the team to Fox the next season.
While the Dodgers games weren’t on local TV all that much in the 1960s and 1970s, Dodgers players and coaches often made appearances in TV shows.
One time someone from the club played a doctor, Doc Woods, for an episode of the Western drama Branded. Woods was the name of the Dodgers’ team physician at the time.
The actor? Walter O’Malley.
Curse or blessing
While the deal has been a big loser for the team’s cable partners, first Time Warner and now Charter, the deal has been a big winner for the Dodgers – at least financially.
Dylan Hernandez wrote in the Los Angeles Times after the Dodgers made it to the 2017 World Series that the money from the TV contract helped make the team more competitive.
But the deal has driven a wedge between the franchise and some of its fans.
After the 2018 Series one reader wrote to the Los Angeles Times opinion page, saying the reason the Dodgers have lost the past two World Series was bad karma. The reader asserted that instead of “The Curse of the Bambino’’ – the supposed reason the Boston Red Sox couldn’t win the World Series from 1918 to 2004 – the Dodgers were cursed by their TV deal.