10 Degrees: How MLB's blackout policy hurts its already eroding fan base

·MLB columnist
In this May 16, 2013, photo, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig answers a question during a news conference at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York. Alex Rodriguez has accepted his season-long suspension from Major League Baseball, the longest penalty in the sport's history related to performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez withdrew his lawsuits against Major League Baseball, Selig and the players' association to overturn his season-long suspension on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. The notices of dismissal were filed in federal court in Manhattan. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Almost eight years ago, Bud Selig vowed to do something about the local-television-blackout rules keeping tens of millions of fans from watching his sport. He said he did not understand the reason pockets of America who wanted to see ballgames on TV couldn't. Then he made a vow: "We have to do something about it."

Here's what he and Major League Baseball have done: Fight like crazy to keep the blackouts in place, arguing the affected fans constitute a "very, very limited area" and that a world in which everyone in America can watch whatever baseball game they please is "completely implausible."

In truth, the issue revolves around the exorbitant local-television dollars that regional sports networks have lavished on teams in the past five years and the concern that in a true free market with a-la-carte pricing for games, the local TV networks would not pay anywhere close to the tens of billions of dollars they have promised teams around the sport. The threat to the cash cow that has pushed league-wide revenue toward the $9 billion-a-year mark has left the league willing to punish fans in Iowa, Las Vegas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Buffalo and other locations with multiple-team blackouts.

For its latest parry in an ongoing lawsuit that seeks to overturn the blackout rules, MLB invoked its controversial antitrust exemption, a rare move for a case that involves non-relocation or non-labor issues and a sign that it takes the suit very seriously.

Already the judge in the case, Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York, has turned down the league's motion to dismiss. The league doubled down last week, asking for a summary judgment that it hopes Scheindlin will grant before the case goes to court.

While the league and the broadcasters named in the suit (including a handful of RSNs and DirecTV) filed the motions last week under seal, other court documents show a combative MLB insisting that its antiquated territorial-rights system – the same one that prevents the Oakland A's from leaving their toilet-bowl stadium for greener pastures in Silicon Valley – is "the heart of the business" and "fundamental to MLB and its relationships with fans, sponsors, and communities nationwide."

A pre-motion letter to Scheindlin argues that "every game is available for distribution to virtually every fan across America." The league takes great liberties with the word "virtually." If every fan wants to subscribe to DirecTV, lock into the minimum $30-a-month package, then plop down $14 a month on top of that for the Sports Pack, well, yeah, maybe – and even then, in some cases, multiple-team markets that use the same RSN such as Chicago with Comcast can't broadcast two games at one time.

Baseball likes to argue that its policy is pro-competitive, which is absurd bordering on laughable. The Supreme Court ruled in the landmark American Needle case that the NFL is not one entity; it is a grouping of 32 exceedingly unique businesses. Baseball's antitrust exemption in theory insulates it from that verdict, though Congress at any juncture could move to revoke the exemption and leave MLB prey to arguments against the fashion in which it divided its pie of the United States.

Territorial rights existed in an era well before the explosion in TV money, and the game – and its technologies – long ago outgrew the idea that a team could be defined by some crudely drawn boundary. Baseball argued in its letter to Scheindlin that territorial rights "serves fans by … supporting a healthy, competitively-balanced league to produce games by 30 clubs, each of which is the favorite 'home team' to its fans."

If that is the case – this ideal in which fans chose a singular home team – how can the league advocate for a system in which it prevents people in Las Vegas from seeing the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Giants, A's and Diamondbacks if they buy its Extra Innings or MLB.tv packages? There's a new slogan: What happens in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Arizona doesn't stay in Vegas. Baseball recognizes how detrimental blackouts can be. In its new national TV deals, it got rid of the Saturday blackouts during Fox's afternoon games as well as the Monday and Wednesday blackouts for ESPN games. This was an obvious move. In a sport bleeding fans nationally, letting people view your product is Business 101.

Baseball's evolution into a wildly local game over the last decade allowed it to pitch itself to RSNs as the best sort of programming: daily, compelling and DVR-proof. It's why Time Warner paid more than $8 billion for the Dodgers' TV rights and other RSNs guaranteed 10-figure deals. And it's why MLB balks at lifting blackouts: With fans able to pick and choose who to watch when, cable companies risk losing subscribers who want to pick and choose their programming instead of getting sucked in by the cable-satellite industrial complex.

There is a happy medium, of course: Giving those in the most blacked-out areas a-la-carte choices while keeping those within a reasonable territory – say a metropolitan area where the RSN is offered to a vast majority of potential TV subscribers – from doing the same. It would be a start. It would address the most significant problems. And although the league said in its motion such a "hypothetical world is completely implausible," with an emphasis underlining "im," any reasonable person – i.e. not one grubbing for every last cent as baseball does with its TV deals – would argue otherwise.

Selig, in the meantime, is no longer the conciliatory commissioner of nearly a decade ago, when at the All-Star Game he addressed blackouts and said he would fix them. On the contrary, in a conference call with reporters before the season, he suggested baseball has "the most fair blackout policy."

He was serious.

"I don't even like to use the term blackout," Selig continued. "It's in a very, very limited area, areas, and the fact is that my goal has always been to protect the local market and the local television carriers. …It's just fair. Local clubs make local deals, and therefore, after all, they've made a deal, and it's up to us, both morally as well as economically, to protect that deal."

There is Bud Selig's commissionership in the final half of a sentence: "It's up to us, both morally as well as economically, to protect that deal." MLB standing on moral high ground forced the cancellation of the '94 World Series. MLB profiting economically laid the foundation for the sport's pervasive steroid problems. MLB's protection of Marlins ownership allowed them to fleece taxpayers for a new stadium, which nearly 20 other teams under Selig's reign did to a similar, if lesser, extent.

Selig has accomplished plenty and done lots of good for baseball, but his insistence on the sanctity of the deal leaves his motivation tilted far more toward the economical than the moral. Just ask the people in Iowa, Las Vegas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Buffalo and the other so-called "limited area."

While they're unable to watch baseball …

1. Yasiel Puig received his seven-year, $42 million contract from the Dodgers because they knew it would be a pittance compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars a year they would reap in the very TV deals at the heart of the blackout. Even though there were questions about Puig – ones on which this brilliant Los Angeles Magazine piece about Puig’s incredible defection shed even more light – the Dodgers can afford to take nearly a $50 million risk.

For baseball, then, to make the argument that territorial rights actually foster competitive balance takes an unbelievable amount of hubris when the small semblance of balance baseball has achieved came on account of revenue sharing (which is not mutually exclusive with redefined territories) and randomness. Territorial rights have not made …

2. Carlos Gomez, and the Milwaukee Brewers are the hottest team in the game despite competing in the smallest market by half a million people. Gomez is Puig without the hype, a silly-talented outfielder with off-the-charts power, speed and an arm. One minute he’ll do something you’ve never seen; the next minute he’ll do something you wish you’d never seen.

Along with underrated catcher Jonathan Lucroy and the resurgent Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers’ offense has helped swing them to nine straight victories and the game’s best record despite a horrible aversion to walks and a great willingness to strike out likely to make them a helter-skelter, up-and-down team. They’re up now mainly because of their pitching, which for two weeks has been revelatory.

All five of their starters sport ERAs of 3.05 or lower. Their bullpen has allowed three earned runs in 32 2/3 innings. They are hot. Ghost pepper hot. The only thing hotter in baseball might be …

3. Chase Utley and his .500 batting average. Yes, two weeks into the season, there’s still somebody up in that rarified territory, and it happens to be a 35-year-old second baseman trying to will his similarly geriatric teammates to the unlikeliest win for old folks since the advent of the early-bird special.

Utley is one of those players who combined a late start to his career – Placido Polanco blocked him from getting full-time at-bats until he was 26 – and later-career injury woes to push legitimate Hall of Fame talk out of the question. The counting stats simply aren’t there, even though Utley’s five-year peak from 2005-09 ranks among the best ever from a second baseman: .301/.388/.535 with 146 home runs, 77 stolen bases in 87 attempts and top-of-the-line defense.

This year’s jag is fun to watch because greatness always lurks with Utley. He leads baseball in all three triple-slash categories at .500/.565/.875, has bopped three home runs and struck out just twice in 46 plate appearances. In today’s high-strikeout environment, the last figure may be the most impressive, which would make …

4. Andrelton Simmons going 40 plate appearances without a single strikeout thus far this season all the more special. The strikeout is more pervasive today than it's ever been, and considering Simmons was more heralded for his arm than his bat coming out of college, his bat-to-ball aptitude is off-the-charts good.

Sunday marked his 10th consecutive game without a K, a streak he twice reached last season. The standard bearer over the last five years is Jeff Keppinger, who in 2010 went 23 games and 101 plate appearances between strikeouts. The streak lasted more than five weeks. Next on the list: Adrian Beltre last season with 19 games (in which he homered eight times, too) and Alberto Callaspo the same.

Walk it back 25 years and the streak turns absurd: Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn went 39 games and 169 plate appearances without a strikeout in the summer of 1995. And while Bob Bailor is the king of the last 50 years with 56 games between Ks, the plate-appearance champion is former Phillies second baseman Dave Cash, who didn't whiff for 219 plate appearances.

Granted, strikeouts then meant far more for the batter – shame, notably – than they do now. It's why pitchers like …

5. Tim Hudson stand out so much today. It's not his build. (Still slight.) Not his sinker. (Still turbo.) Not even his lack of strikeouts. (Sixteen in 23 innings over three starts with the Giants.)

It's the big, fat zero under his walk column. If you are not going to strike out hitters – and Hudson's career K rate is 6.07 per nine innings – then you need spot-on command, and Hudson's evolution into that at age 38 remains evident as ever.

Survivor of a Tommy John surgery as well as last season's horrific broken ankle, Hudson is one of the game's true arm iron men. He ranks second among active pitchers behind Mark Buehrle in career innings, and a typical Hudson season – which is to say 200-plus – would push him over 3,000 in his 16 seasons. On the list of pitchers with more than 2,000 innings are mostly command-and-control guys, with the occasional power pitcher (C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett) tossed in. Nobody who fits …

6. Yu Darvish's profile, though, these days, who really does? After coming off the disabled list, all Darvish did was throw 15 consecutive shutout innings with eight hits, two walks and 15 strikeouts. Considering he's actively trying to keep down his pitch count and work later into games, Darvish starting the season with a strikeout-an-inning pace may not suffice for those who desire the monster K numbers he put up last year.

The list of pitchers in history who put up a better strikeout rate than Darvish's 11.9 per nine innings goes like this: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez. That's it. Johnson topped it six times and Pedro once. That's it. It's why the perfect combination – Darvish plus age-27 season – is expected to yield the sort of greatness …

7. Felix Hernandez continues to show when he's not poppin' tags with Macklemore. Felix, remember, is just 28, even though it seems like he's been around for a decade … which, actually, he has. If his team weren't so downright brutal for the entirety of the time, he'd be the sort of person about whom the public would say: If he got hurt today and couldn't pitch again, he might be a Hall of Famer.

One Cy Young award. Another second-place finish. Tons of innings in an era where innings are impossible to compile because of specialized relief staffs and arm breakdowns. Lots of strikeouts. Low walk and home run rates. The Larry Bernandez commercial. It's all there.

And over his first three starts, he looks like vintage Felix, or as vintage as one can minus a few miles per hour off his fastball. He has, accordingly, turned into a distinct sinkerball pitcher, the sort who can also generate swings and misses with his curveball and slider. It's the sinker – which he has thrown about 60 percent of the time in his three starts – that's the biggest weapon, and it helped generate a major league-high 30 strikeouts in 21 1/3 inning. Contrast that with just two walks, and it's the dominant sort of ratio …

8. Jose Bautista is generating on the hitting side of the ball. While Bautista's power defines him – and it should, given his five home runs this season – his batting eye remains remarkably underappreciated.

Even though he's batting just .225 – thanks, luck – Bautista's OPS is 1.071 on account of his .446 on-base percentage. The 16 walks that led to that hefty number have been counterbalanced by just eight strikeouts, which, in 40 at-bats, is nothing worth bragging about, per se, but considering it's only the 33rd most among 95 hitters with 50 plate appearances, it's on the cusp of the game's upper-third. Slightly behind him is …

9. Jose Abreu in both home runs (one back) and strikeouts (three ahead), though both are numbers the White Sox will take. Abreumania went into full swing this week with his variety of home runs. He'll hook one down the line, pummel one out to right-center, hit it every which way in the ballpark, the latest Cuban whose salary sounded outlandish (six years, $68 million) and may prove an incredible bargain.

Pitfalls remain. Scouts said they expect Abreu to hit a temporary wall when pitchers make adjustments to him, though that is a big presumption, one said, "because he doesn't have many big holes." At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, Abreu lords over the strike zone like a monolith in "2001." He has rendered his supposed hole – inside, inside, inside, the rap went – useless with wrists quick enough to whip his bat around on a pitch close to them.

And not only is Abreu the class of an overhauled White Sox team for whom new addition Adam Eaton is playing exemplary leadoff man, too, he has blended in remarkably well among Chicago's clubhouse. Veterans like him. Young players like him. The manager likes him. Management likes him. He has faced none of the complaints …

10. Yasiel Puig stomachs on what seems like a daily basis, from missing cutoff men to complaining about injuries to not hustling. The story on Puig has devolved into with-him or against-him camps, which is really too bad, because you can be with him by understanding the social adjustments he continues to make while being against rationalizing such adjustments as the root cause for all of his behavior, which he must understand demands remedies because of who he is and where he is.

If he weren't Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodger, $42 million man – if he weren't in a crucible and the subject of immense scorn by a media machine that feeds on itself – the timeline wouldn't be so severe. Except he is all of those things, and the choice to sign with the Dodgers demanded a different set of rules, one similar to playing in New York, unfair though that may be.

He went with the team that has an $8 billion TV deal, and being a face of that team has its drawbacks. One of them, actually, was rather unexpected. For as many people as there are lodging misguided complaints about Puig, the number would be even greater if people actually were watching the Dodgers. Huge swaths of fans do not get the team's new channel, SportsNet LA, because Time Warner is trying to recoup its investment by charging exorbitant monthly rates.

Considering it's a Dodgers-only channel, DirecTV and others aren't willing to pay that and pass the cost along to their customers. It's the same issue Houston's failed Comcast station ran into and one that calls into question the long-term viability of these local TV contracts, especially when other tech products give users the freedom to choose. The modern consumer likes that. He does not like being forced to buy a bunch of things even though he wants just one, and she does not like being told what she can and cannot see.

Baseball is doing all of these things. It's why some people in Vegas can't see Puig, why those in Iowa are robbed of Abreu, why those in Fort McMurray, Alberta, more than 1,000 miles from Seattle, are blacked out from King Felix.

This is "the heart of the business." This is "fundamental."

This is embarrassing treatment of fans baseball doesn't deserve.