Major League Baseball is finally trying to white out its blackout problem – and the restrictions that prevent so many from watching games on television and over the Internet may be lifted as early as the 2009 season.
At the owners' meetings in May, all 30 teams are expected to deliver reports outlining the territories in which they currently broadcast games or have concrete plans to in the future, according to an MLB source. Based on the information, MLB will redraw its territorial-rights map – the outdated gerrymandering that causes areas such as Las Vegas and Iowa to be blacked out from 40 percent of games on a full schedule – to better reflect the present broadcast landscape.
The catalyst behind MLB's sudden action is president Bob DuPuy, who at last year's meetings took a hard-line stance on the blackouts. Aware of the outrage among baseball fans and torrent of letters pouring into MLB offices over an issue with a fairly painless remedy, DuPuy told the owners they had to stake legitimate claims to their territories or risk losing them.
Some owners, another source said, were concerned about existing TV contracts and potential discord among advertisers who were promised certain territories covered. DuPuy understood the conflict and allowed them one year to work out any issues.
The year is nigh, and though the MLB source said it's too late to implement the changes this season, MLB will try to do so before 2009, when it launches the Baseball Channel, potentially its biggest money-making venture since MLB.com grew into a $2 billion business. The Baseball Channel will be much like the NFL Network.
MLB.com's success helped fuel the hullabaloo over the blackouts. MLB.tv advertises that it broadcasts "every game" over the Internet, conveniently forgetting to publicize the caveat that sometimes leaves more black screens than RGB. The majority of the public is unfamiliar with blackout rules until confronted with them from MLB.tv or the televised Extra Innings package, then outraged at a policy that originated around the Summer of Love and hasn't changed.
Back then, MLB had 20 teams and little television coverage beyond the postseason. Territorial rights were analog endowments carried into the digital age, and while in some cases they still apply – the Red Sox own a legitimate claim to the entirety of New England with regional-sports network NESN's ubiquity there, and the Yankees and Mets are big enough draws for the YES Network and SportsNet New York to stretch across their territories, and perhaps beyond – most should be up for grabs.
Is Des Moines a Twins territory? Do the White Sox have a genuine claim? Why not the Royals? They're closest. The Cubs are the most popular, the Cardinals traditionally the most successful, the Brewers currently the best. If nothing else, the re-written territorial-rights map could give teams incentive to actively pursue areas such as Iowa and Las Vegas and draw new fans instead of relying on what they inherited. The forgotten would turn into the recruited.
Obstacles do remain, which is why 2009 is an optimistic date and the blackouts could stretch into the next decade. DuPuy may not be satisfied with teams' findings, and teams may fight for their territories out of fear that the have-have not divide would only deepen with a re-drawn map.
Take, for example, El Paso, Texas. It is about six hours from the nearest team – which happens to be in Arizona. The two teams in Texas, the Rangers and Astros, are about 10 hours away. So who gets El Paso? Surely it's not an orphan.
Cities with multiple cable companies offer problems too, if teams work out TV distribution deals with one outlet but not the other. Technically, the game would be available in that area, no matter how limited. Would it be blacked out?
Baseball is well-versed enough in compromise to figure out ways to satiate both the owners and public. Fans already give up most Saturday afternoon games to the blackout Fox bought so it could have exclusivity. It isn't fair. It is business, and the financial prosperity derived from TV contracts and other media rights has helped baseball avoid work stoppages for consecutive collective-bargaining agreements. The trade is worth it.
Most promising is baseball listening to its public. During the MLB Extra Innings debacle last year, in which baseball held cable companies hostage by threatening not to offer them the package unless they put the Baseball Channel on basic digital cable, MLB ignored the outcries of its fans and instead chased a buck. Cable companies didn't and bowed to MLB's request, thus ensuring the Baseball Channel the largest launch in cable history.
This time, it was different. You wrote the letters. You lodged the complaints. You hammered home the inanity of it all.
And when the black cloud is lifted, you'll have reason to celebrate, right there on your screens in beautiful color.