Please Let Me Give You Money For Sports
Opening Day means the return of the stupidest system in televised sports.
STICK TO SPORTS
It’s Opening Day! Or at least it is while I’m writing this! By the time you see this post, it will have been Opening Day and now it’s not anymore! Exclamation points! Baseball!
Unfortunately, the Cubs did not grace my television screen for Opening Day, and that was not a matter of choice. I’m a Hulu+ subscriber, and while Hulu has spent lots of money on pro athletes to tell you Hulu has live sports, it doesn’t have a lot, and unlike 2020, it doesn’t have the Marquee Sports Network anymore.
I’d be perfectly willing to pay extra for it. Doesn’t matter. Not an option.
You lied to me, Deep Fake Saquon Barkley!
Is there a Marquee Sports Network streaming app? There sure is! Can I use it? I sure can’t! Since I’m not a cable subscriber, only internet, I’m “not” “authorized” to stream on the site, no avenue for me to say “here is money in exchange for the service of watching the product that you are perfectly capable of putting on any of the screens I own.”
But when it comes to streaming baseball, the ultimate destination is of course MLB dot TV, which is at once the perfect demonstration of what streaming can accomplish for fans and the perfect demonstration of how licensing agreements can ruin the situation for those same fans.
Major League Baseball when it sees someone trying to legally watch a game that’s not being televised where they live
Conspicuous in every advertisement for MLB dot TV is that fans are able to watch every out-of-market game, live and at no additional fee except the subscription model. And life being what it is, there’s lots of out-of-market fans for whom the app is utterly indispensable.
Alas, what defines a “market” is what breaks the whole thing. Whereas the NFL’s blackout rules were entirely local and introduced to discourage fans from staying home and watching on TV if tickets were available, MLB’s blackouts are tied to local distribution rights — at least, in theory.
Terrible Maps, but in a different way.
Because fanbases are diffuse and teams are sometimes very close to each other, even in the same city, blackout zones are allowed to overlap. That means that several teams can be blacked out in the same location, most famously southern Nevada and my beautiful state of Iowa with six blacked-out teams apiece. Most insanely, these rules apply regardless of whether or not the games are actually available to customers on television.
Here’s the process, as simple as I can explain it, which is probably not simple enough.
Each franchise in MLB has designated a portion of the US and/or Canada, based on the first three digits of zip codes, which is its “local territory.”
The rights holder for a team’s “local territory” is granted exclusive television broadcast rights in these areas for that team’s games, above national broadcasts and streaming services.
Since these territories can and should overlap, MLB franchises have the incentive to make their regions as expansive as possible, in order to make the territories as lucrative as possible to regional networks.
For the regional networks, the exclusivity is extremely important, as they want ratings to be as high as possible in order to generate higher ad sales and make as much money as they can to offset the considerable licensing fees.
The networks, of course, have to turn around and negotiate with cable providers to actually get them to agree to terms for televising games, and cable providers are not obligated to agree to terms (nor should they be, that would be borderline extortion). These carriage negotiations are why you so often see messages begging viewers to tell their cable company not to drop channels — what they really mean is bugging call center workers to have their company pay more for certain channels than it wants to.
And if I am sounding sympathetic to cable companies, trust that I am not. Call center workers, yes. Leave them alone.
Each step makes sense in a short-sighted way. Baseball team wants to sell TV rights for the most money. Network wants to make as much money off broadcast as possible. Television provider doesn’t want to pay more for channels than it wants to. Fans — you know, the people that spend that money everyone wants to make so bad — have virtually no say in this process, and certainly no organized entity that any of those stakeholders would have to heed, and thus we just end up… left out. Holding out our money with no takers and everyone pointing the finger at everyone else as to why that is.
This is all a broken, terrible process. Cover your children’s eyes before they read the rest of this sentence, but it’s fucked. Whenever anyone says that a free market will “work itself out,” have them explain how having two or three teams out of six blackouts actually available for viewing is a situation that’s worked out. Of course, it’s scarcely a “free” market when the middleman and the distributor are both working as functional monopolies.
In a perfect world, Rob Manfred — you know, the MLB commissioner, which I totally didn’t have to google just now for like the dozenth time in my life — would wake up one morning and decide that fans should be able to watch whatever baseball game they want to, and instruct his constituents to figure it out before he figures it out for them. And then monkeys would fly out of Wayne Campbell’s butt.
Since that’s not going to happen, I’ll just be here being forced to decide between paying an extra $20 a month and switching my TV from Roku to AT&T, or re-subscribing to my cable provider for TV at an even higher premium. Or really, deciding whether being able to watch the Cubs — the only baseball team I’ve ever loved — is even worth that trouble at all. They traded Yu Darvish for several children, y’all.
Maybe I’ll just see if that anonymous MLB employee can share their 30-team MLB dot TV password with me again. Allegedly.
Stick it to the system and subscribe to a scofflaw like me, or else you’re one of them!
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Hey, if you have $5 per month to spend, you should subscribe to The Second Arrangement*, which is my favorite NBA writing on these internet streets, all done by blog-era godzilla Kelly Dwyer. He certainly didn’t ask me to endorse his work, and I might be embarrassing him right now, but I look forward to his letter showing up 3-4 times a week, which is far more often than mine show up for none dollars a month. He writes the way Boris Diaw played basketball and I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
*Of course he went with a Steely Dan reference.
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Thanks for joining me today. We’ll always end on a kind word.
Every day, I’m blessed to see more and more of my friends receiving their vaccines. I didn’t think there was something I’d enjoy seeing on Instagram more than the hundreds of dogs I follow, but when it’s friends holding up their cards or showing off their (totally unnecessary) bandaids, it gives me the biggest smile every time. I mean it, every time.
I’ll be getting my second shot soon, and I can’t wait to be able to spend time with as many of you as possible, with a level of safety that we’ll not be taking for granted ever again. I’m hoping for all of you lovely readers to get your shots as quickly as possible if you haven’t already, and whatever’s been taken away from you over the last 13 months, I hope you get as much of it back as possible, as soon as possible. You’ve made it this far, you deserve it, and you’re awesome. Stay safe.