TV Answer Man, I have Hulu and as you probably know they don’t have Bally Sports and I want to watch the (Arizona) Diamondbacks. I want to subscribe to MLB TV but they black out the Diamondbacks in my area. So my question is if I use a VPN which hides my area from MLB TV, is it illegal? Will MLB sue me or try to put me in jail? And will I be able to watch the Diamondbacks if I use the VPN? — Tim, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Tim, as you know, the Sinclair-owned 21 Bally Sports regional sports channels are still unavailable on YouTube TV, Hulu Live, Sling TV, Dish and FuboTV due to separate carriage fights. The only major streamer that carries them is DIRECTV Stream, but the service’s plans that include your local Sinclair RSN now start at $79.99 a month for the first three months.
In addition, live streamers (except for DIRECTV Stream) also do not carry many other regional sports channels such as MASN, NESN, Marquee Sports, the AT&T-named sports networks, SportsNet LA, Altitude and so on. Unless deals are struck in the next few weeks (not likely), millions of streaming (and Dish Network) customers won’t be able to watch their home team when the 2022 Major League Baseball season starts on April 7.
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 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 the league has never commented specifically on whether it opposes VPN or has ever taken legal action against subscribers who have used them to watch their home teams on MLB.TV.
That is, until now.
Last week, I asked a MLB spokesperson three questions regarding VPNs and MLB.TV:
1. Is MLB opposed to the use of VPNs to watch MLB.TV?
2. Has MLB ever sued a MLB TV subscriber for using a VPN?
3. Has MLB ever sought criminal charges against a MLB TV subscriber for using a VPN?
After four separate inquiries over a week, the spokesperson finally answered last night:
1. No comment.
For the first time, MLB has acknowledged it has never tried to sue or prosecute anyone for VPN use and the league isn’t even taking a position on whether it opposes the use of VPNs.
This certainly runs counter to the public perception that MLB is trying to crack down on VPN use and is prepared to use the courts when necessary. This is not to suggest that MLB is saying you should use a VPN. (The pay TV services that pay handsomely to carry regional sports channels wouldn’t appreciate that. If everyone used a VPN for MLB TV, they wouldn’t need to subscribe to the pay TV services.) But the league certainly isn’t telling you not to use a VPN.
It’s fair to surmise that MLB executives have concluded they wouldn’t win in civil or criminal court if they tried to prevent the use of VPNs to watch MLB TV. But there’s another possible reason why 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.)
In the past when addressing this topic, I’ve noted there’s also an ethical question here. By using a VPN, you are clearly attempting to “circumvent” a blackout restriction, which is against the MLB TV rules. But the league’s current neutral stance on VPN use would seem to soften that concern.
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 this new information is very valuable to cord-cutters anxious to watch their home team during the 2022 season.
Tim, hope that helps. 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