Q. I cut the cord a year ago, but I want to watch my Boston Red Sox without getting a subscription to cable or satellite or even a YouTube TV thing. Is there anyway to do that? How about one of those VPNs thingys that people talk about? Can you get in trouble using that? — Henry, Warwick, Rhode Island.
Here we go again.
Many fans were hoping that Major League Baseball would eliminate the dreaded TV blackout this season as a thank-you gesture for being patient during the Coronavirus shutdown. But nope. There is no change to the league’s blackout policy. If you want to watch your favorite local team, you’re going to have to subscribe to a pay TV service. MLB.TV, the league’s online plan for games, will blackout your local teams. (This is the same for the NBA and the NBA League Pass; local blackouts still apply.)
The dilemma becomes even more difficult for consumers who subscribe to a pay TV service that does not carry the regional sports channel in your market. For example, Dish not carry the 22 Fox-named (but Sinclair-owned) regional sports channels while YouTube TV does not have the Marquee Sports Network (the TV home of the Chicago Cubs) or the Yes Network (the TV home of the New York Yankees.)
So with the shortened 2020 season due to start in nine days, cord-cutting baseball fans are again forced to wonder about the legalities and ethics of using a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a software that you can download that will enable you to use an IP address different from your own. For instance, if you live in Warwick, Rhode Island, you could insert an IP address into your computer or smart TV device supplied by the VPN company that would make it look like you live in Denmark.
The cost of a VPN varies, but many services sell them for under $10 a month. And there are numerous choices available. (Here’s a Tech Radar story for its pick for the best VPN.)
By using a VPN, you could subscribe to the MLB.TV plan for $59.99 this season, and watch every Red Sox game in Warwick. Normally, MLB.TV would be required to blackout the in-market game because the regional channel in your market has the exclusive rights. But with the VPN, MLB.TV wouldn’t know you live in that market.
This is true for other markets as well. For example, a Washington, D.C. resident could watch the Washington Nationals on MLB.TV as could a New York Yankee fan watch their favorites in Manhattan and so on. This can be advantageous because you wouldn’t have to subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service to get the regional channel that airs your home team’s games.
MLB.TV professes to oppose the use of VPNs, and even says in its fine print that those who do could be fined and/or face “legal action.” However, I can not find a single instance where the league took anyone to court, much less prosecuted someone for using a VPN.
I don’t even know what law you would allegedly violate if you did use a VPN. Afterall, it’s not like you are stealing anything from the league by using one because you are paying the full subscription amount whether you watch your home team or not. The only difference is that you get to watch the games you want to watch.
At this point, I must acknowledge that I am not an attorney so please don’t count this as professional legal advice. But I do follow this industry very closely, and have for years, and I think I would know if the league ever decided to make this a criminal situation.
I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a specific law that would govern the use of a VPN to stream the games. Otherwise, the league would cite it, and use it, when it catches someone in violation.
MLB will cut off your MLB.TV subscription if you get caught; there are plenty of cases of that. But, Henry, I don’t see you getting arrested.
However, there is another consideration here.
While there would seem to little or no concern of being criminally charged, there is the issue of whether this is the correct moral choice. Skirting the terms of your MLB.TV agreement might bother some people (myself, for example. I was raised Catholic, you know.), but maybe it doesn’t bother you.
It’s your call.
Have a question about new TV technologies? Send it to The TV Answer Man at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first name and hometown in your message.
— Phillip Swann