Owners to discuss blackout solution

Baseball's territorial blackouts, the scourge of so many frustrated television and streaming-video viewers, will be eliminated for the 2009 season if Major League Baseball's executive council follows suggestions president Bob DuPuy plans on presenting next week.

At the owners' meetings Wednesday, DuPuy said he will propose that if a team is not broadcasting in a geographic location for at least one season, it loses the right to black out games in that area. Gone would be the blackouts that prevent folks in Iowa and Las Vegas from seeing as many as six games each night and have caused viewing havoc throughout the country.

"I see no reason why there ought to be so many clubs able to black out in those territories," DuPuy said. "That's my intention. That's my goal. I didn't get any pushback. The whole thing is about making the game more popular and available."

Such an idea clashes with the current territorial-rights rules, drawn up in the 1960s to gerrymander each team a specific area in which it could build its fan base. The rules have lagged behind the technology of the Extra Innings package and MLB.tv, both of which offer every game only to black out tens of millions of potential viewers nightly.

While cities with teams rarely are affected – a local affiliate, such as the YES Network with the Yankees or New England Sports Network in Boston, usually carries a majority of games in major-metropolitan areas – ones on the periphery often suffer. Las Vegas, for example, is at least a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego, yet games played by teams in those cities are blacked out. No Las Vegas cable company regularly broadcasts any of those teams' games.

Under DuPuy's suggestion, Las Vegas could not be claimed as part of any of those teams' territory unless a team's slate of games was carried by at least one local broadcast operator. If not, that team's games would be available in out-of-market packages such as Extra Innings and MLB.tv.

Competition for new territories, DuPuy figures, is a good thing: The breadth of blackouts lessens, and the potential interest from teams looking to spread their base only helps the sport's growth.

"I don't think it hurts anybody," he said. "Although I will say, I attended a meeting almost a year ago. Our broadcast people raised a whole bunch of hobgoblins. There are a bunch of esoteric rules. But I think we'll be able to get past them."

The biggest issue, DuPuy said, concerned so-called "haircut provisions." Because television contracts tie advertising dollars to audience size, any potential shift in a coverage area could trigger issues. DuPuy's staff pored over the 30 teams' local television contracts last week and has yet to determine how potential conflicts would affect his plan.

DuPuy initially hoped to handle the blackout issue at owners' meetings in May, though surgery on his legs forced him to participate in the discussions via conference call. The issue, spurred on by thousands of letters from angry fans, was deemed important enough to necessitate face-to-face discussions.

Not all blackouts will vanish under DuPuy's plan. The blackout of Saturday afternoon games on Fox, which is part of MLB's nearly $700 million annually in TV contracts, will remain. That blackout, as opposed to territorial rights ones, was for sale.

And while that's no solace, the specter of teams in blacked-out areas finally having the curtain lifted is promising. With the MLB Network set to launch in 2009, there is incentive to get all television properties in working order.

"I would like to think that if we increase the popularity of baseball," DuPuy said, "it ends up being a good thing."