Q. I am a cord cutter who just wants to watch my San Diego Padres without having to subscribe to a cable or DIRECTV company or even a streaming service like DIRECTV Stream. Why can’t I watch the Padres on MLB TV without having to resort to using a VPN or some other suspect device? This is absolutely ridiculous and unfair. Can you explain it to me? — Jamal, San Diego.
Jamal, as you may know, the 2022 edition of MLB.TV, the league’s online package, is offering all out-of-market games for $129.99. (The $129.99 pre-season price will eventually be raised to $139.99, but MLB TV has not said when.) The cable/satellite’s MLB Extra Innings package, which is offered by services such as DIRECTV, Dish, Comcast, Charter/Spectrum and Verizon, offers the same games at prices for roughly the same price.
That’s a lot of dough, isn’t it? And you can’t even watch your favorite team!
So let me try to explain why.
Major League Baseball’s blackout policy says any game in your “home television territory” will be blacked out whether the team is playing at home or away. You cannot watch the game live, but MLB.TV will offer the game in its archives roughly 90 minutes after the game is over.
It doesn’t seem right, does it? You pay all that money for a programming package so it would only seem fair that you would get all the games, particularly your home team.
But here’s the method behind MLB’s madness.
Your local regional sports channel — in your case, Bally Sports San Diego, which airs the Padres games — pays a significant amount of money to the team and league for the rights to broadcast those games. It wants you to watch the game on its channel, not a baseball package.
If people are watching the game via MLB TV, the ratings for the regional channel will decline and it won’t be able to charge as much for commercials.
Okay, you’re thinking, couldn’t the regional sports channel just add the viewers who watch their game on the package with those who watch it on their channel and come up with a bottom line number?
It’s not that easy. First, research shows that viewers of a pay package of games are less likely to spend as much time watching one game in particular, say the Padres game. In between innings, the MLB.TV viewer will flip around and watch other games rather than watch the commercials. That’s bad for Bally Sports and its advertisers.
Plus, Nielsen does not measure viewing of individual games in a pay package such as MLB.TV so it would be impossible to accurately determine exactly how many people are watching the Padres. That’s bad for Bally Sports, too.
Finally, the regional sports channel wants you to watch it rather than via MLB TV because it helps build interest in the channel as a whole, which enables the channel to force pay TV operators to pay significant fees to carry it. If everyone could get the channel’s live games on MLB TV, they wouldn’t need to subscribe to the cable, satellite or live streaming service that carries it.
As you can see, it’s all about the money.
But what’s particularly frustrating for fans is that the league will extend the blackout of the local team scores of miles away from the regional channel’s home base. (Fans in Las Vegas and Iowa are particularly hit hard by this, being unable to watch multiple teams.) MLB doesn’t want the regional sports channel coming back and complaining that the pay package is stealing potential viewers, even if it the odds of them watching the regional channel is small.
Bottom line: The local blackout rule protects the regional sports channel, which paid a lot of money for that protection.
Will this ever change?
There was a time I would have said no. But MLB recently told the TV Answer Man that it had no comment on whether it opposes the use of VPNs to avoid blackouts. That was a stunning no-position position from the league and could signal that it’s searching for ways to widen the audience for its games, even if that means bruising the regional sports channels a bit. In addition, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has hinted the league wants to have greater control over how its games are viewed online and, possibly, do more to reach the growing audience of cord cutters.
But for now, the in-market blackouts are in place and the VPN is your only option if you want to avoid them without a pay TV subscription.
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— Phillip Swann