Left in the dark

View the MLB territorial map
(Click map to zoom; credit: Dan Werr at baseballthinkfactory.org)

Previous: A black(out) eye for baseball (May 26, 2006)

There is a hilarious commercial playing on the radio these days. It is for Major League Baseball's online video-streaming service, and the announcer states with all the zeal of a snake-oil salesman: "Sign up for MLB.TV and never miss a game again!"

Bill Reed is the punch line. He misses lots of games. For the last two years, Reed has subscribed to MLB.TV, and because he happens to live in Keokuk, Iowa, he has been subjected to baseball's television blackout rules rooted in the game's dark ages.

"I am closest to St. Louis (three hours away), yet I am blacked out for being 'local market' by my ZIP code for the following teams: Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and the Milwaukee Brewers!" Reed wrote. "Tell me how I am considered local market for six different teams."

I would love to tell him. I would love an answer as to why MLB believes it is prudent to keep every fan in Iowa from seeing up to 12 teams each day. Forget the Bermuda Triangle. The newest mystery is the Iowa Hexagon: Where Major League Baseball disappears. And as misguided as blackballing an entire state sounds, the problems run much further and wider.

Unfortunately, commissioner Bud Selig – the man with the power to change these rules – doesn't seem too interested in doing anything proactive about them. For three weeks, I have tried to talk with Selig about baseball blackouts. The response to our first story was overwhelming, with tales from coast to coast about unfair blackouts. As one reader, George Petrella of Brocton, N.Y., wrote: "In short, Major League Baseball, an entertainment industry, will not allow me to watch or purchase their product."

With the Jason Grimsley human growth hormone bombshell, Selig's interests are obviously elsewhere. Through a spokesman, Selig said he would rather someone else in MLB's front office address the issue. Perhaps the commissioner was busy penning the open letter this week that addressed the performance-enhancing drug issue, in which Selig pledged: "I am committed to protecting our game."

From a substance for which there is no reliable test, he meant. Not from rules that, with a little compromise, could be tweaked to benefit the constituency he should represent – the fans – instead of the owners that blackouts protect.

At issue are territorial rights, the policies that bequeath each team a certain geographical area to call its home market. Why they remain in place when technology allows the broadcast of all games and the ubiquity of information shatters the very idea of territories is mystifying. Baseball builds barriers where it needs none.

Blackouts, the thinking goes, are in place to guard teams from tickets going unsold because fans choose to watch the game at home. Is it truly necessary, then, to extend territories for hundreds of miles? If Horacio Muñoz, an El Paso, Texas, native who canceled his MLB.TV subscription this year, got off work at 5 p.m. and immediately started driving toward Ameriquest Field for a Texas Rangers game, he would arrive at 2 a.m. A trip to Minute Maid Park would land him in Houston around 4 a.m.

"How ridiculous are they in thinking I would drive in for a game?" Muñoz wrote. "Love baseball, but (this is) just another reason for me to go outside and enjoy the evenings."

On the other hand, blackouts apply when teams travel. So, for example, if a New York Mets fan lives in Orlando, and his cable or satellite provider does not offer the network that carries the Florida Marlins, he cannot watch the nine games each season the Mets host the Marlins at Shea Stadium.

That makes about as much sense as live games being entirely blacked out in Japan (to the chagrin of Kevin Allgood, a Georgia native in Kyoto) and half of Nevada – including Las Vegas, possible home to a major-league team in the future – having its own six-pack of blacked-out teams (the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks).

Mentioning that more than a million people in Washington, D.C., can't see their home team, the Nationals, on cable because MLB's sweet deal gave Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos his rival's broadcasting rights, or alluding to MLB selling its soul … er, TV rights to Fox and, because of that, blacking out every game on Saturday afternoons – well, that would be piling on.

At this juncture, it's too easy to point out the problems because there are so many. It's incumbent upon baseball to think of resolutions rather than sit on its hindquarters while dissatisfaction mounts.

"The frustration of these rules started helping me think of a solution," wrote Nick Zack, a blackout-affected fan in Mesa, Ariz. "If MLB is collecting the money from these games, why not make them available to those in the blackout range, but kick back the revenue to the teams that are being watched? So if I was in Yuma, always watching Padres games on MLB.TV, San Diego would collect the revenue from that game. Then baseball can allow its fans to watch the games, and the local' teams can still keep their revenue. Or is there something I am not understanding?"

No. It just makes too much sense.

Instead, some fans will provide fake ZIP codes to their satellite companies and others will use IP spoofing programs to throw off MLB.TV and the truly sneaky will turn to Slingbox, a neat device that uploads a television feed to a computer stationed anywhere. "I hooked it up to an upstairs cable connection at my parents' house in Jersey," wrote one wayward Mets fan.

It shouldn't be that difficult. People shouldn't have to lie or use nefarious computer programs or ask their poor parents for permission just to watch a baseball game.

"Does (Selig) believe that my kids will become baseball fans when I'm watching no baseball at all instead of the team he has chosen for me?" Petrella wrote. "Major League Baseball, you have a great product. Too bad you won't let me buy it."

Oh, you can buy it. Just not all of it. Which gave Darryl Borque, of Beaumont, Texas, the idea for a revised advertising pitch.

"Subscribe to MLB.TV for $79.95 a season," he wrote, "and we can't guarantee you'll see your favorite team, but we'll gladly take your money."

Sounds like a perfect radio spot to me.