Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blackouts Are Still In

While The Uncommon Wife is away for a few days, The Common Man and The Boy have winged (wung?) their way to sunny Arizona for some grandparents, great-grandparents, and cousins. And, of course, Spring Training. The upshot, for today anyway, is that The Common Man is unavailable for general blogging. In fact, it is taking the last of his energy and sobriety (The Common Man immediately poured himself a double of Jack Daniels after lugging three bags, a mega-stroller, and a carseat around three airports because The Common Man was too stubborn to check luggage. The Boy, thank God, was an angel all day.) Anyway, in lieu of himself, The Common Man contacted his boyhood friend and frequent commenter, Bill, to sub for today (though there should be some random Thursday action coming your way late Thursday). Bill's an awfully smart guy, and a talented and discerning writer, who really should be blogging in his own right. Bill was concerned that a lot of the ideas he wanted to write about wouldn't be fully developed enough or painstakingly researched enough for to his own standards. The Common Man was all, like, "Dude, have you read this blog before?" and convinced him to lay his fears aside. Anyway, if that's what it takes, he needs to stop his lawyering and fathering and husbanding and general business and get writing. 'Cuz feeding your family and stuff is highly overrated. Show him some love and encouragement and tell him to get back to "work." Without further ado, here's Bill:



Many thanks to TCM for letting me borrow his space for the following rambling rant. Warning: I use words like "I" and "me." I know you haven't seen those words here before, but it turns out that I'm a person, and not a Platonic construct. So I know it'll be weird for you, but just assume that those words mean the same things they do on any other site. Cool? Okay.

So have you noticed that in the last five or so years, Major League Baseball has gone from an organization with as much technological acumen as your grandpa to the cutting-edge leader, among all the major sports, in utilizing the awesome marketing power of the internet, and of cable and satellite TV? It may be hard to come around to that idea (baseball was so blind to these resources for so long, after all, and is still pretty prehistorical about a lot of things, and its really hard to admit that an organization run by this guy is doing anything right), but think about it for a minute.
• You can watch baseball games on your computer with MLB.TV from anywhere in the world (and it usually works pretty consistently now if you've got a pretty good connection, very unlike four or five years ago).
• You can listen to the radio broadcast of any baseball game on your computer through Gameday Audio or in your car with Sirius/XM Radio.
• You can get baseball games from other markets on your TV through MLB Extra Innings (and now you can usually even choose which broadcast to watch, so you're not stuck with the stupid YES Network every time your favorite team has to play the Yankees).
• If you don't want to pay for any of that (or if that's just not enough for you), MLB.com gives you Gameday, easily the best graphical play-by-play tracker out there, for free (who would've figured, five years ago, that MLB would be the best at giving you something that any national news organization could also give you?).
• Gameday in turn offers Pitch-f/x, probably the most important advance in baseball statistics since some guy came along at some point after Jim Rice and Andre Dawson retired and realized that walks are good things.
• Even the website itself, by the standards set by, e.g., NFL.com and NBA.com, is pretty great. Easy to use, loads pretty fast, not too hard on the eyes. Just don't read it for the articles.
• And earlier this year, MLB launched the MLB Network, available on most but not all cable packages. The "analysts," by and large, make the dufusses at ESPN's Baseball Tonight look like Bill James and Aristotle combined, but the non-newsy content is, by and large, a baseball geek's dream come true.

You have to admit, there's a lot of good stuff going on around here (and that's just the officially sanctioned stuff, ignoring completely your BBREFs and THTs and BPs and FanGraphs). It's a good time to be a hopeless baseball addict, especially if you're forced to live in a different market from your home team.

Except.

The part about watching games on your TV or computer? Well, you probably get to see the games you want to see. Most of them, if you live in the right zip code. See, against all odds, MLB continues to employ the most senseless and archaic set of blackout rules in existence -- an opaque set of restrictions that, sometimes seemingly at random, prevents certain users in certain markets from being able to see certain games; they've paid as much as anybody else has for MLB.TV or Extra Innings, but they get to see fewer games, and there's nothing they can do about it (besides move, I suppose).

The rules were created at least 30 years ago, and while I'm not at all convinced they've ever done anybody any good, they definitely weren't created with the internet and satellite TV in mind. This is the rough equivalent of your grandpa outfitting his house with wireless internet, a huge HDTV, and a sweet surround sound system, but then continuing to have to make sure the party line is open when he wants to use the telephone.

Of course, when one talks about baseball's "blackout rules," they're really talking about one of two distinct things, both of which suck for very different reasons: national blackouts and local blackouts.

National Blackouts: These come from specifically negotiated contracts with the big boys, ESPN and Fox; in exchange for getting paid a huge sum of money from the network, MLB agrees not to allow any games to be shown at the same time as the games the network is contracting to broadcast, other than local, regional broadcasts. In theory, this is kind of hard to argue with. If the networks are willing to pay more for exclusivity, MLB is totally within its rights to give it to them. And I have no quarrel with ESPN here: the blackout affects only their Sunday night games (it used to be that games were also blacked out for Wednesday Night Baseball, which seriously devalued your MLB.TV or Extra Innings subscription), and almost no other games are played on Sunday night anyway (when they are, it's almost always because the game is outdoors in Arlington or Miami in July and the teams are trying to avoid spontaneous combustion, and ESPN will often make an exception from its policy in those cases).

Fox, however, has the Saturday afternoon game, and competing Saturday afternoon games are much more common than Sunday night ones. The small print on the MLB.TV page linked to above says that Fox's blackout affects "live games occurring each Saturday with a scheduled start time after 1:10 PM ET or before 7:05 PM ET." The practical effect of this is that unless Fox itself is carrying the game, only teams in the eastern time zone schedule Saturday afternoon games (since those typically start at about 1:05 ET), and all the others start after 7:05 ET. The fact that Fox would want to black any games out at all is puzzling, since perhaps half or more of all local broadcasts are run on a Fox Sports Net channel anyway.

But Fox seems to really enjoy competing with itself, and that's the real problem. The only games that really get effected by Fox's blackouts are games that are being shown on Fox -- just not in your market. So if you're (oh, let's just say) a Twins fan living in Chicago, and Fox owns the rights to both the Cubs-Cardinals and the Twins-Indians, obviously your local Fox station is carrying the Cubs game, and because of the blackout arrangement Fox bargained for, you have no way of seeing the Twins game. On Fox.

I suppose the reason the powers that be would give for this is that they want you to see the local ads for your own market, right? But the thing is, a lot of the ads Fox shows during these games -- most of them, probably -- are for Bud Light or Ford Trucks. Big national ads for big global companies who would probably pay a little bit more to be piped into a few thousand (or more) extra homes via satellite TV or the internet. So Big Bob's Discount Auto Superstore gets some free airtime to reach some viewers living hundreds of miles away; is that really a dealbreaker here? Maybe it wouldn't even be that hard to come up with a feed that puts your own local commercials in another region's feed...I have no idea. What I do know is, there's no real justification for a policy whereby Fox prohibits competition from itself. None. Make it go away.


Local Blackouts: These are much more complicated, and yet much more stupid. The following map (borrowed without permission from Bleed Cubbie Blue; click that picture to access a greatly magnified version) shows the oddly gerrymandered group of overlapping territories within which a given team's (or teams') games cannot be shown on MLB.TV or Extra Innings. I'm not going to get into why this rule was initially created (frankly, I don't understand it, but it sounds pretty questionable even for the time), but now -- especially since they've now made both teams' broadcasts of most games available -- it serves absolutely no purpose.


If the idea is to make people go to games rather than watching them on TV, that's an epic policy fail. Research has shown for about sixty years now that the availability of telecasts has little to no effect on baseball attendance, and anyway, the policy applies to the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox, who sell out every game regardless, with the same force as it does to the Royals and Marlins.
If it's advertising-related...um, how? If you watch an Orioles broadcast in Irvine, California, you see all the local Baltimore commercials. Wouldn't letting residents of Raleigh, North Carolina see those same commercials be better, not worse?

And whatever the purpose, the regions are much, much, much, much, much bigger than they need to be. Until about two years ago, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, a lovely little place that was nowhere at all near Baltimore or Washington. A die-hard fan might drive four or more hours each way to see one or two Nats or O's games a year. Yet, as you can probably see from the map, Charlottesville was squarely in the blackout zone. What's more, both of the "local" nines played the bulk of their games on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network -- a network that the cable companies serving Charlottesville did not carry. Whatever the local blackout rules were intended to do, it's hard for me to imagine that blocking an entire city from meaningful access to its product was part of MLB's plan.

But that's just my personal experience, not the worst of it. From my reading of the map, the entire state of Iowa is prohibited from seeing -- are you ready for this? -- the Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Royals and Cardinals. I mean, what can even be said about that? Does the MLB brass just really hate Iowa (perhaps they took a field trip only to find out that the Field of Dreams didn't really have ghosts playing on it)?

There was hope not so long ago, when MLB officials strongly hinted that the blackout policy would be reconsidered this offseason. But the subject apparently fell by the wayside, and we're stuck with the same infuriating inanities for at least another year. How is that possible? How is it any more complicated than: (a) here's the policy; (b) it infuriates fans and serves no purpose; (c) let's can it? Voting to table the discussion probably took longer than the discussion itself should have taken. It seems obvious that there's something in this for the owners that I am missing (along with everybody else).

The question, then, is: where's the secret profit? What are the owners actually getting out of this?

The answer: it doesn't freaking matter. If Iowans and central Virginians have to pay the same price as anyone else for the service, they should get the same service. If you're going to promise that "you'll be able to follow your favorite team from opening day to October no matter where you live," you have to make it so people can, you know, follow their favorite team from opening day to October no matter where they live.

Pretty simple, right?



The Common Man thanks his friend profusely for helping out when no more blood could be squeezed from The Common Man's stones. Good job. Dude, this could be the Jack Daniels talkin', but hwkjeaoijadioghjioadfsklewrjioe;a....

3 comments:

lar said...

Great post, Bill. (it's nice to be able to refer to your name there :-)

Of course, I've read plenty about the stupidity of baseball's blackout rules before, but this is much more thorough than what I've seen before. Plus, you did a good job of pointing out all the ways MLB is doing things well. So what the heck is their problem when it comes to blackout restrictions? I mean, if you're one of the 6000 people who live in Cherokee, IA, is it even possible for you to be a baseball fan? I guess you could follow the Iowa Cubs, but I doubt they're on tv much and Des Moines is 3 hours away.

Anyway, good stuff, Bill.

BillP said...

Thanks, lar! Love your stuff too, by the by.

And thanks TCM for the kind words. Though I'm pretty sure the guy you describe wouldn't have used "by and large" twice in the same sentence.

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