Monday, April 24, 2017

The Silliness of the Blackout

Now, I don't live in Las Vegas, and I'm quite glad that I don't.  For one, it's going through some economic ups and downs, as could be expected from a place whose primary product, tourism (read: "gambling and glitzy shows") now has competition where it never had at that level, from anyplace that has Indians who can claim "tribal land."

But to get to the point, I'm a baseball fan, and Las Vegas is the blackout king of all the zip codes in America when it comes to broadcasts of major league baseball games.

By way of background, understand the way the system works, aside from blackouts.  The major satellite and cable systems are the way that TV is generally brought to the American consumer.  In the case of the usual broadcast networks (ABC, Fox, CBS, NBC) and the "other" channels like Food Network, TLC and the like, the satellite and cable companies pay them for the right to carry those networks no their channel guide.

Sports is the same way.  For sports, you have a network (or two) in pretty much all the cities where you have teams.  In Chicago you have WGN doing Cubs and White Sox games; in New York there is the YES network (Yankees) and another I forgot, that broadcasts the Mets.  The Twins have Fox Midwest; the Red Sox have NESN, the Rockies have Root, the Orioles and Nationals share the Baltimore-Washington market and both teams are delivered with MASN/MASN2.

Those networks are called "regional sports networks" or "RSNs."  And they are delivered to cable companies just like the Food Network is -- the cable or satellite company pays the network for them.  In the case of baseball, though, it gets complex.  The customer has to buy an annual subscription for the sport to see all games, and the cable company delivers not the networks themselves, but a separate set of set-aside channels where, for a given game, the cable company gives you the feeds of one or both RSNs' broadcasts.

Now -- while there are usually 15 games per day, you will not get all of them -- your zip code will dictate that at least one team's games will be blacked out to you.  That's supposed to be, theoretically, the teams whose home games you could go to, protecting the ticket sales.

However, when all this was set up, some clown decided that every zip code, even in Great Falls, Montana, would be assigned a team whose games were "local" for them.  Amazingly, that was never cured, so even though there was no "see-all-games" package when this was done, that model of zip code locality survives today.

I'll give MLB more credit than it deserves by saying that well, maybe with the new cable packages you wouldn't go to the games, but they had to protect the RSN for the teams in your zip code by making you have to go to the RSN itself -- which would generally be part of your cable package separately -- to see the games.

Now for me, that was fine when I lived in northern Virginia and had a satellite dish with DirecTV.  The MASN channel is the RSN for the Orioles and Nationals, and DirecTV gave me MASN as part of their service because I lived in the area.  Of course, I only got the MASN broadcast for Orioles and Nats games (because the other team's broadcast was blacked out in favor of the "local" team's channel, MASN), but that was OK; I still saw the games.

It's not fine now.  We live near Myrtle Beach, SC, but our zip code says that the Orioles and Nats are our "home" team.  Fine, you would think, same deal as when you were in northern Virginia, right?  Well, no.  There are two cable companies here, and neither one delivers MASN as part of its service.  So while I do buy the "all games" package from Major League Baseball, I can see no games of either the Orioles or the Nats, which is particularly a pain for the 19 games a year the Orioles play Boston -- my team.

And I'm lucky.  I'm only blacked out of two teams' entire seasons.  In Las Vegas, you are blacked out of all games of the Giants, Athletics, Dodgers, Angels, Padres and Diamondbacks.  I almost feel that I shouldn't be writing this, because I have it good.  Most days, Las Vegans (?) are blacked out of 80% of major league baseball.

But ultimately this is, and has been, a PR disaster for the professional game, specifically because, as bad as it is, Major League baseball has not done a single thing to try to fix it, showing they simply don't care about their fans.  There is a host of solutions to this, not the least of which would be to trash the current zip code system and its associated assumption that everyone is in the ticket-buying zone for at least one team, and set a 150-mile restriction to establish blackouts.

I would also, or at least, restrict the blackouts to only areas where all cable systems available carry the RSNs.  If you have zero way to see the games, there's no point to blacking them out, is there?  You're trying to promote the sport, not hide it from view.

But like every other problem on earth, it simply needs to be a case where Baseball sits down with RSNs, cable and satellite companies and fan representatives (I'll be happy to step up for that, as a published writer on the topic) and start with "What are we trying to accomplish", such that any solution actually should fix the real problem, not the wrong one.  And it should not cause more issues than it solves.

How easy might that be?

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton.

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