Possible progress on blackout issue
Now is the time to right a wrong. Though sometimes I wonder if that is asking too much of Major League Baseball.
For the amount of hand-wringing it took to settle the Extra Innings-DirecTV brouhaha, I cringe to think how baseball will try to remedy a problem that affects millions of fans instead of thousands: The frustrating – and unnecessary – television blackouts.
MLB president Bob DuPuy plans to officially address the blackout troubles in front of the sport's powerful executive council two weeks from today at the quarterly owners meetings in New York. How seriously the eight-man council treats the concerns will go a long way toward proving whether baseball is serious about rewriting its archaic rules or simply raising the issue to muzzle all of the fans who are not allowed to buy the product baseball is selling.
Sound familiar? Throughout spring training, when it seemed as though the Extra Innings package would be offered only on DirecTV, commissioner Bud Selig showed a haughty disregard for the fans, mocking the thousands of cable customers orphaned by the league's proposed money-grabbing exclusive deal. In the end, MLB got its promise from cable companies that they would launch the Baseball Channel in 2009, and the majority of fans now have access to every game, every night.
Well, in theory at least. The reality is much different. Some areas are blacked out from 40 percent of the games on a full schedule. No one in Iowa can watch the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins and White Sox. Las Vegas has its own hexagon of darkness with the A's, Angels, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants and Padres.
Think about that. Baseball, which has made billions of dollars through MLB.com and its national television packages by knocking down the barriers that prevented mass consumption, is more than happy to ignore its own Great Wall.
The reasoning is simple: MLB doesn't stand to make money off lifting the blackout restrictions. More than 40 years ago, baseball created the territorial-rights rules that gifted every team a specific geographic area in which they could market to a regional fan base. Without the luxury of guaranteed national exposure, these cordoned-off realms made some sense.
No more. Most teams distribute their games on television through regional sports networks, like the Kansas City Royals with Royals Sports Television Network. The Royals' situation is a good example of how asinine the blackout rules can be. They have the fifth-largest blackout area, covering all of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and most of Missouri. Fans in those states whose cable or satellite providers do not carry RSTN will be blacked out from every Royals game.
For a franchise mired in a decade-long struggle, limiting the availability of the product seems counterintuitive to developing a fan base outside of the Kansas City metro area.
"You build a following by exposing an area to a team where they get to know the players," Royals owner David Glass said. "If you never, ever get to watch them, you wouldn't be as inclined to go and see them. I'm glad it's coming up, and I'm glad we're going to discuss it."
When DuPuy was in Kansas City last week, he and Glass discussed the blackout issue. Glass told DuPuy he had received a number of complaints from fans, and DuPuy relayed the same. At the All-Star break last year, Selig said he, too, had heard plenty of feedback – and had been a blackout victim at times as well.
He's far from alone. Fans in Eugene, Ore., have to drive more than 500 miles to see a San Francisco Giants game. St. Louis Cardinals blackouts extend to pieces of nine states. Even in the crowded East Coast television market, Pittsburgh Pirates blackouts cover all of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, some of Ohio and slivers of Maryland and New York.
The principal owners of those teams hold a seat on the executive council. So does Glass. Hopefully the four of them can convince San Diego Padres owner John Moores (whose team's blackout area is among the smallest), Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (whose New England Sports Network is perhaps the best of the regional sports networks in covering blacked-out territories) and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos (who already know something about sharing territorial rights) that blackouts must go.
"There are 30 teams and 30 interests we take into account," Glass said. "For the commissioner and Mr. DuPuy to make that all come together is sometimes difficult."
He's right. By lifting blackout rules, baseball would be asking owners to give up something they've held for almost half a century. Even if territorial rights are worth far less than they used to be, their value is higher to some than others, and the idea of sacrificing for the greater good rarely resonates with businessmen.
The point: This might take a while.
So, in the meantime, status quo reigns. Sneaky fans will use IP spoofing programs to fake out MLB.com or have a family member install a Slingbox to send local programming over the Internet and onto a computer. And those with neither the technological wherewithal nor the money for a fancy gadget will be stuck in the dark with no rational explanation why.
That doesn't suffice for Joseph Parra. In Buffalo, N.Y., where he works as a staff sergeant at the Army recruiting station, fans are blacked out from four teams, including the Cleveland Indians. When he tried to watch an Indians game on Extra Innings recently, a black screen greeted him.
"I need help," Parra said. "What can we do?"
Just wait and see if baseball is willing to right something so obviously wrong.