Baseball and Blackouts
I’m going to break away from the baseball previews because I got an email from my good friend Brian, who recently moved to Nashville, and it fired me up.
Brian is, I would say, a more-than-casual baseball fan. He’s not a Level 10, Ellen Adair, sort of fan. But I’d say in a typical year, back when he lived in Los Angeles, he’d go to a handful of Dodgers games, and he’d watch some on television.
He’s a big enough baseball fan that when he and his family moved to Nashville, he got the MLB.tv package to keep up with the games.
He has not signed up yet for the package this year, and on Thursday he forwarded me a rather brash and presumptuous email from MLB about that. “We Miss You,” the subject line began, which is kind of sweet. And then, like a hammer, came the next part in parentheses: “(And You’re Missing Out).”
Well, that’s … bold. It sounds a bit like the kid in high school who’s throwing the party nobody wants to go to. “Fine,” the kid whines. “But you’re missing out.”
MLB doesn’t want Brian to miss out. So, in an effort to get him back into the fold, they’re offering $10 off the annual $139.99 subscription price — a 7.1% discount! — which is quite the deal when the offer is to “Stream out-of-market MLB games live or on demand on your favorite supported devices. PLUS, enjoy select 2022 Spring Training games, MLB Big Inning and select Pregame and Postgame coverage..”
I mean, that does sound great, and obviously Brian wanted to click the big red START NOW button.
But then he was reminded below of the five words (in very small letters) that made him decide to drop the package in the first place.
BLACKOUT AND OTHER RESTRICTIONS APPLY
As mentioned, Brian lives in Nashville. There’s no team in Nashville. There’s no team within 250 miles of Nashville. So he was shocked to find out that Braves games are blacked out on the baseball package. That’s a problem. He is, as mentioned, a Dodgers fan, and the Dodgers-Braves games this year will be some of the most interesting and fun of the entire season. I mean, you have Freddie Freeman going to the Dodgers, you have Kenley Jansen going to Atlanta, you have the rivalry that heated up during the NLCS last year, he’d like to see those games.
Can’t see them on the package.
But it was more than that. He also saw that Cincinnati Reds games are blacked out in Nashville. What? How? Cincinnati is even farther away than Atlanta.
And he insists that last year, he tried to watch a few different Cardinals games, and those too were blacked out. This doesn’t actually sound right — Cardinals games are supposed to be blacked out in Memphis but not Nashville — but who even knows anymore.
The big point is … Brian isn’t getting the baseball package.
And this blackout thing is unquestionably crushing an entire generation of potential baseball fans in some of America’s biggest cities … the last thing that baseball needs right now.
So, in John Oliver style, I’m going to try (with some help from television friends) to talk about baseball’s blackouts, where they exist, why they exist and what can be done about it. The answer to the last question will be depressingly negative, but we’ll get there.
First off, if you live in a big city anywhere in America that does not have a team, you are subject to the baseball blackouts. For example, I live in Charlotte, the 14th-largest city in America now. When we first moved here, I was in high school, and back then Charlotte was a professional sports wasteland. I’d say the biggest rooting interests in town back then were, in order:
North Carolina Tar Heels basketball
Probably N.C. State Wolfpack basketball (this was when Coach K was just starting)
The American Dream Dusty Rhodes
Whatever baseball interest there was in town was pretty scattered — some Yankees fans, a few Orioles fans, Charlotte has always had a lot of transplants — but if there was a favored baseball team, it was the Atlanta Braves, just four hours away down I-85.
It goes without saying that Atlanta baseball is blacked out in Charlotte.
What doesn’t go without saying is that the Baltimore Orioles are also blacked out in Charlotte. And so are the Washington Nationals. And, impossibly, so are the Cincinnati Reds. What is the deal with the Reds, anyway? They don’t want to be seen anywhere? They want to keep Joey Votto that much of a secret? Cincinnati is an eight-plus hour drive away! I could get to Cleveland faster.
As you will see, though, the distance to Cincinnati is not at all the point.
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Charlotte is an extreme blackout example, but not the most extreme. Here are the top 30 cities in America that don’t have baseball (with their population rank). And listed with them are the blackout teams.
San Antonio: Astros and Rangers.
Austin: Astros and Rangers
Jacksonville: Tampa Bay Rays and undefined.*
Charlotte: Orioles and Nationals and Reds and Braves.
Columbus: Reds and Guardians and Pirates.
Indianapolis: Cubs and White Sox and Reds (those dang-blasted Reds!).
El Paso: Astros and Rangers
Nashville: Reds and Braves.
Oklahoma City: Astros and Cardinals and Royals and Rangers.
Las Vegas: Angels and Dodgers and Padres and Diamondbacks and Athletics and Giants.**
Memphis: Reds and Braves and Cardinals
*I don’t know what “undefined” means when it comes to Jacksonville blackouts but I suspect it means that MLB will periodically just choose teams to black out there for no obvious reason.
**How about SIX TEAMS being blacked out in Las Vegas? There’s a winning plan for the future.
Pure madness, right? And just cherry-picking a few other major American cities: The Guardians, Pirates, Mets and Yankees are blacked out in Buffalo; the Astros and Rangers are blacked out in New Orleans; the Angels, Athletics, Giants, Dodgers and Padres are blacked out in Honolulu (???); the Diamondbacks and Rockies are blacked out in Salt Lake City; and in Des Moines, get this, the Cubs, Cardinals, White Sox, Royals, Twins AND Brewers are all blacked out.
Hi, Des Moines baseball fans! Here’s our middle finger.
Anyone can see this is a big, fat, annoying problem. How in the world can you expand baseball’s reach by preventing people from seeing baseball? It’s infuriating.
So, what we should obviously do is start screaming at MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Except — and believe me, I would never discourage you from screaming at the commissioner for any reason — in this case, it isn’t his fault. And there’s really not a whole lot he can do about it.
See, they called it the MLB blackout policy, but it isn’t exactly that. Yes, there was a time, years ago, when blackouts were put into place to protect attendance, and many think that’s still the reason — this is why it’s so exasperating and maddening for fans in Honolulu or Las Vegas or Nashville to be cut off from watching teams that are nowhere near.
But attendance has absolutely nothing to do with the blackouts.
And MLB as a whole has little to do with it either. See, in baseball, unlike the NFL, teams negotiate their own television deals. That sounds kind of small — it’s often called “local television revenue,” which sounds Mayberry quaint. But these are huge-money deals. These are Brian Koppelman deals (Billions!). The Dodgers’ deal alone is worth $8 billion. The Yankees’ deal is worth almost $6 billion. The details from some of the deals are kept pretty hush-hush, but probably half the league has a 10-figure deal with a regional sports network.
And, these are LONG deals too. They Dodgers’ deal was for 25 years. The Yankees deal was for 30 years. These will not be ending anytime soon. I will be 75 (hopefully) when the Yankees’ deal ends.
So all of this is really complicated, but the basic two themes are not.
Theme 1: Regional sports networks spent alarming amounts of money to broadcast baseball games.
Theme 2: Regional sports networks need to get onto as many platforms — cable and otherwise — to recoup that money.
Take the Cincinnati Reds. In 2016, they signed a 15-year-deal with Fox Sports Ohio — now Bally Sports Ohio — for probably around $600 million. It might be a bit more than that, might be a bit less, but I think we can all agree that’s a huge chunk of change for the 36th-largest television market in the United States.
So, how does Bally Sports Ohio make money on this deal? Well, right, Cincinnati is just a tiny part of their plan. They need to be on cable in Columbus. In Indianapolis. In Nashville, In Louisville. In Charlotte. In Memphis. They need to have people buy the DirecTV regional sports packages in those places.
And they might not get any of that if the Reds are available to stream via MLB.tv.
Now, think about that for 30 teams, all those regional networks, every one of them scrambling around, trying to recoup the enormous (and, let’s be honest, inevitably doomed) investment they made. People in the know tell me that the regional sports network model is crumbling, even now, and will only crumble more as more people move away from cable and DirecTV and go to streaming services.
I don’t know enough about that to comment. But I do know this: The blackouts aren’t going anywhere.
It’s so bad for baseball and baseball fans. But, is anyone really surprised that the teams would chase the last dollar to the detriment of the sport and the fans? Is anyone really surprised that MLB would put Las Vegas and Des Moines in the territory of six different teams? Is anybody really surprised that an Orioles fan in Charlotte — assuming the Orioles’ tanking has not forever turned them off — has no way of watching the team play? Is anyone really surprised that four different teams are fighting to get on Honolulu’s cable TV package?
I’m sure you have your own horror story to share.
Is anyone really surprised? No. Nobody is surprised. This is baseball. If it weren’t the best sport going, they would have killed it off a long time ago.