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MLB TV deal gets fuzzy reception

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

So here comes Major League Baseball in a quick, shortsighted money grab (again), selling out its core fans (again) and telling everyone (again) how the sport ought to be consumed.

Here comes MLB, as arrogant and detached as ever, ready to limit its popular "MLB Extra Innings" package by giving it exclusively to DirecTV rather than a large consortium of cable and satellite providers. And for what, an average of a million bucks per year, per team?

That's the price of fan loyalty these days? That's how much baseball owners value their best costumers? A bad middle reliever?

According to the New York Times, MLB is close to handing DirecTV the exclusive rights to Extra Innings – which allows fans to watch many out-of-market games – for $100 million per year over seven years. InDemand, which distributes the package currently, has upped its offer, but, according to the Washington Times, its deal will pay about $30 million less per year.

The difference averages out to $1 million per franchise, per year – or, in these days of overheated player spending, chicken scratch. Even if it was five times that, it wouldn't seem worth it to keep the product from so many fans.

According to industry figures, 75 million of America's estimated 92 million cable/satellite households (82 percent) have access to the Extra Innings package.

DirecTV reaches just 15 million households, or 16 percent of available consumers.

How MLB, which isn't talking about the proposed deal, could consider severely limiting the availability of its product a good idea at that pathetic price is stunning.

"It always seems to be a risky proposition when you're not only reaching fewer fans but raising their ire in the process," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "I've already seen reports that fans are not happy."

Why would they be? The current system – aside from MLB's maddening and nonsensical blackout policy – is the best one for fans. Extra Innings was available to almost everyone. You didn't need a dish, you didn't need to switch providers. You just paid and watched. Over 750,000 people loved it.

While some fans will undoubtedly make the change, it probably never dawned on baseball owners who live in gated mansions that not everyone can get DirecTV. Many apartment complexes and condominium developments prohibit satellite installation. Some lack the required clear view of the southern sky.

Other fans, especially the coveted younger demographic, may be in a transient stage and will not want to invest in a satellite system for a temporary place. Some simply favor their current television providers – such as Comcast in Philadelphia – which offer compelling original local sports programming. Others will balk at DirecTV, whose reception can be affected by weather and struggles to provide service for multiple television sets.

The reasons hardly matter. The question is: Why make it more difficult for customers to buy the product?

MLB would certainly like fans to sign up for streaming broadcasts of games through MLB.TV, but no one can, with a straight face, claim that watching a game on a computer is the same as on television.

"One thing we know about sports fans is they want to consume content on their own terms and not be arm-twisted into a way the league wants," Carter said.

Not that the owners cared about that. Or this. Or anything that has to do with you.

Extra Innings is more than just another entertainment option. For many, it's emotional. With downsizing and a fluctuating economy, Americans have increasingly been on the move, seeking jobs and lives throughout the country, often away from their childhood franchise.

Extra Innings gave many a taste of home each summer night. It offered, for example, the Mets fan who relocated to California the opportunity to follow his team – and his town – as if he still lived back in Queens. It provided a bond with old friends and family.

Baseball can do what it wants – ours is, after all, a capitalistic society – but this deal is a slap in the face to loyal fans, who the owners clearly believe will never abandon the sport.

About the only surprising thing here is the lack of surprise. This is consistent with how MLB runs its business, an anti-trust exempted monopoly of a product that is part of the fabric of America. It is a plaything and tax write-off for the rich and ridiculous.

The only hope to ditch the dish is intervention from Congress, which could strip MLB of its anti-trust exemption, which stems from a 1922 Supreme Court case that ruled baseball games were just "local affairs" and – get this – not "interstate commerce."

But considering how much money billionaire owners can sprinkle around to politicians, you could get better odds on the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. Similar efforts against the NFL have died quickly.

Which is why baseball knows it never needs to reciprocate fan loyalty – you have no other choice.

"The challenge is how to maximize (revenue) without turning off your core audience," Carter said.

Not for baseball owners. There is no challenge. They've long ago proven they don't care about anything but fast cash.

The thing is, just because they own the teams, they shouldn't own the game.