A black(out) eye for baseball

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Jey Cho is 24 years old. He helps manage trusts. He enjoys watching the Oakland Athletics in his down time. And this poses a very large problem.

See, Cho lives in Las Vegas. While he has his choice of five Cirque du Soleil shows, a score of naked magicians and the one – and, praise the Lord, only – Celine Dion, he cannot see the A's. Or the San Francisco Giants. Or the Arizona Diamondbacks. Instead, when he uses his MLB.TV subscription to click on any of their games, a blank screen greets him.

For this little slice of ironic corporate stupidity – in the age of ubiquitous information, an entity actually is restricting its ubiquity – fans have Major League Baseball's territorial-rights policy to thank. You see, around 40 years ago, baseball began gerrymandering specific areas of the country to teams so each one could market to a localized fan base. As media walls broke down and television coverage expanded and the NFL made billions of dollars more than its competitors with a national contract, baseball allowed teams to retreat to their fiefdoms and handle TV however they chose. Now the sport faces the double whammy of local TV revenue being the great divide between haves and have-nots that also keeps a fan like Cho wondering why he can't watch his favorite team play even though its stadium is 400 miles away.

"I've pretty much just given up," he said. "No matter what angle I try to go at it, the response is always the same: It's the decision of the Office of the Commissioner, and no one can do anything about it."

Not immediately, at least. Even if Bud Selig chooses to make this a priority – and considering the current plan alienates fans in Las Vegas, a possible future MLB destination, along with dozens of other mid-sized TV markets near major metropolitan areas, he'd better – hashing out the specifics will take time.

The broadcasting landscape today is like HDTV to the black and white of when baseball first awarded territorial rights. Regional sports networks, created to cover the breadth of a team's territory, bring huge money, and baseball only encourages teams to exploit the rights.

With the YES Network, the New York Yankees pull in more than $100 million a year in revenue, as their market is the big leagues' fourth-largest. (The Toronto Blue Jays, with all of Canada, have twice as many potential viewers as the second-biggest territory. The Kansas City Royals rank last.)

By allowing teams to act individually rather than centralize its broadcasting like the NFL, baseball cedes the sport's best interest to 30 teams looking to better their own.

So Cho tracks the A's on satellite radio and Internet gamecasts. And Charlie DeBrunner, an MLB Extra Innings subscriber for years in Harrisburg, Pa., wonders why the package, designed to broadcast up to 60 regular season, out-of-market games a week, no longer shows the Washington Nationals or Pittsburgh Pirates and only sparingly allows Baltimore Orioles games across the air. And thousands of other fans find themselves in the dark, literally, when it comes to watching their favorite teams because they live in one of the hundreds of ZIP codes each team can restrict from watching.

"When it comes to those sort of situations," Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy said, "we need to visit those issues and make sure people have a chance to see those games."

McClatchy is on baseball's executive council, and he said the subject of territorial rights has not come up in its meetings. He said he heard about other committees discussing the issue but never with any intent of changing it.

Getting baseball to budge from status quo is like moving a fat cat from its designated napping spot. The sport has allowed its teams to squat on their territories for so long that asking them to loosen the standards could cause a mutiny among owners. George Steinbrenner built YES to capitalize on his team's territorial rights, and it was a brilliant business decision. The Boston Red Sox knew every cable- and satellite-equipped television would eat up the New England Sports Network, and they own 80 percent of it.

If baseball tried to centralize television so it could take all 2,430 of its yearly games to an exclusive national package, Steinbrenner and other big-market owners would bring MLB to court quicker than you can say "antitrust exemption."

"There's an active discussion in baseball, and it has to do with teams trying to protect their local markets," said Andrew Zimbalist, the sports economist and author of "In the Best Interest of Baseball?" "A problem like this is more easily resolved than trying to centralize television. What you can do is designate certain areas from exemption from the rules. It doesn't benefit anybody to black out markets. What might work, in these territories that overlap, is to allow the teams to cooperate and sell a package of their games to the cable distributors in those areas."

While Zimbalist's idea would take care of servicing the fans in multiple-blackout markets, it also would involve teams agreeing upon equitable money breakdowns from the fees they would charge cable and satellite providers. And it would give the providers headaches from fans who want to see one team more than another. And it would anger the teams whose rights don't include the in-between markets and, thus, can't double dip their TV contracts.

What comes of this is a dichotomy: Baseball surely wants all of its fans to watch as many games as possible – for all of the negativity associated with the sport, it's never been richer as a business – but seems to give more value to respecting its owners, whose pockets, remember, are lined by those fans.

When he saw MLB.com's broadcasts were blacked out, Cho remembered that his local cable provider was giving a free preview to the Extra Innings package. He tried the A's channel. Black screen. He tried it the next day. Same thing.

"I contacted the local cable company here," Cho said. "They told me they have no say over what games they're allowed to broadcast, and they just follow the rules."

Rules that made sense a long time ago. And rules that need a rewrite, pronto.