TV Answer Man, I have YouTube TV and they still don’t have a deal with Sinclair for the Fox Bally or whatever they are calling the regional sports channels these days! I want to watch my team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, without getting a cable sub (ick!!) so could I get MLB.TV and use a VPN to avoid the blackout? Or are the VPNs still illegal and against the rules? Please help!! — Johnnie, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Johnnie, the Sinclair-owned 21 regional sports channels (to be renamed Bally Sports channels next week) are still unavailable on YouTube TV, Hulu Live, Sling TV and FuboTV due to separate fee fights. The only major streamer that carries them is AT&T TV, but the AT&T TV plans that include your local Sinclair RSN start at $84.99 a month!
So unless a deal is struck in the next seven days (not likely), millions of streaming customers won’t be able to watch their home team when the 2021 Major League Baseball season starts on April 1.
That prospect has prompted several readers to e-mail me with inquiries regarding the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Network) to skirt the blackouts. The VPN is 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 Scottsdale, Arizona, you could insert an IP address supplied by the VPN company that would say you live in Denmark. Then, you could subscribe to the MLB.TV online package (pre-season price: $129.99) and watch the Diamondbacks on Fox (Bally) Sports Arizona because the the IP address wouldn’t say Scottsdale.
“IF YOU CIRCUMVENT, OR ATTEMPT TO CIRCUMVENT, ANY BLACKOUT RESTRICTION OR OTHER USE RESTRICTION: YOUR SUBSCRIPTION WILL BE SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE TERMINATION AND A CHARGE OF ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS ($100.00) FOR EARLY TERMINATION; YOU MAY BE SUBJECT TO LEGAL ACTION; AND MLB RESERVES THE RIGHT TO REPORT SUCH MISCONDUCT TO APPROPRIATE LAW ENFORCEMENT AUTHORITIES.”
Note that the language does not specifically refer to VPNs, and there’s no known record of the league ever prosecuting anyone for using a VPN to avoid blackouts. (The league has suspended MLB.TV accounts when it has discovered their use.) This has left some, including yours truly, to suggest that league executives are uncertain if they could win in criminal court.
(And there’s another possible reason they haven’t gone to court. The league generates revenue from VPN users that they otherwise would not get. A subscription is a subscription.)
The league even refers to their use in MLB.TV’s FAQ section for its blackout policy. The league explains how a game could be blacked out in a home because of a VPN.
“If you are accessing the Internet through a VPN connection, you might be getting a blackout message because the host IP address for the VPN is within the restricted range of the game that you are trying to access,” the site says. (For example, if your VPN uses a St. Louis IP, you couldn’t watch the Cardinals.)
If the league was firmly opposed to VPNs, why wouldn’t it note here that you are not permitted to use them?
So the legality of using a VPN to avoid a blackout is at least uncertain.
But there is an ethical question. By using a VPN, you are clearly attempting to “circumvent” a blackout restriction, which is against the MLB TV rules. But in this era of rampant password sharing (also prohibited by MLB TV), that may not be enough to stop most people.
Before you start searching for a VPN, however, allow me to caution that I am not an attorney and this article does not constitute legal advice in any way, shape or form. But I think the facts are clear here.
Happy viewing, and stay safe!
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