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Stop Confusing Major League Baseball with the NFL

Mike SteffanosWednesday, May 31, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

In an article for Yahoo Sports, Jeff Passan makes a valid point on the draconian nature of MLB's blackout policy, but, as so many others have done, he allows himself to meander into fantastical nonsense:

Jey Cho is 24 years old. He helps manage trusts. He enjoys watching the Oakland Athletics in his down time. And this poses a very large problem.

See, Cho lives in Las Vegas. While he has his choice of five Cirque du Soleil shows, a score of naked magicians and the one - and, praise the Lord, only - Celine Dion, he cannot see the A's. Or the San Francisco Giants. Or the Arizona Diamondbacks. Instead, when he uses his MLB.TV subscription to click on any of their games, a blank screen greets him.

For this little slice of ironic corporate stupidity - in the age of ubiquitous information, an entity actually is restricting its ubiquity - fans have Major League Baseball's territorial-rights policy to thank. You see, around 40 years ago, baseball began gerrymandering specific areas of the country to teams so each one could market to a localized fan base. As media walls broke down and television coverage expanded and the NFL made billions of dollars more than its competitors with a national contract, baseball allowed teams to retreat to their fiefdoms and handle TV however they chose. Now the sport faces the double whammy of local TV revenue being the great divide between haves and have-nots that also keeps a fan like Cho wondering why he can't watch his favorite team play even though its stadium is 400 miles away.

Passan is on the money concerning MLB's ridiculous blackout policy, which blocks fans from having access to their team's games, even though they live far enough away from that city that their local cable provider doesn't provide those games. Ask New York Mets fans in the Hartford, CT area. They represent a low percentage of the area's baseball fans, so the cable company won't accommodate them, but, since the entire state of Connecticut is considered Mets territory, they can't purchase Mets games via computer or a cable Extra Innings package, where the games are blacked out. This is an intolerable situation that must not be allowed to continue.

To branch off into some comparison with how the NFL handles its television rights, however, is really off-base and unwarranted. NFL football is a national game. Major League Baseball is a local game. There are two very good reasons for this:

  • NFL games are an event, with teams playing only once a week. MLB plays every day. There is little interest in even the best MLB matchups outside of the two cities whose teams are facing off. Just check out ESPN and FOX's national numbers.

  • Most importantly, people bet on football games. Even folks who are not all that into football will take part in pools or wager a few bucks. With the exception of the most fanatical gambling addicts, people don't bet on baseball, period. The conversation ends here. Baseball will never be a national game in the way that football is, because you don't have the interest and the eyes of people whose money is riding on the outcome. Anyone that has a shred of honesty will admit this.

When I used to bet on football, I watched a lot of games. When I decided to stop subsidizing my bookie about 15 years ago, I stopped watching most games. There is no incentive to watch Jacksonville clash with the Tennessee Titans when I have no money riding on it. I love baseball more than most people, and I'll watch a few innings of games a couple of times a week that don't involve the Mets. I imagine that puts me in relatively small company. Read my lips: baseball is very much a local game.

Mr. Passan seems to come across as profound with this statement:

By allowing teams to act individually rather than centralize its broadcasting like the NFL, baseball cedes the sport's best interest to 30 teams looking to better their own.

In reality, he is spouting nonsense. In markets where baseball is very popular, the fans are treated to quality in the broadcasting of their team's games. SNY may have had its ups and downs, but the Mets fan is being served exceptional coverage of the team compared to what was offered in years past. Do any of you doubt that, if MLB maintained control of broadcasting all games, the quality would drop? Mr. Passan may not like Regional Sports Networks, but they do a good job of serving the fans. On a sport whose season is played out daily over a six month period, there is no sensible way to nationalize coverage.

Funny how so many guys like Mr. Passan love that NFL model. It supposedly represents the acme of what can be achieved in "parity" and revenue sharing. Yet NFL owners are currently bickering back and forth between themselves, despite the huge television dollars that subsidizes the sport in ridiculously inadequate cities such as Jacksonville, Charlotte, Nashville and Indianapolis. Small market teams are pocketing over $100 million a year in televising money, but they want more. They want virtually every cent that a team earns to be shared evenly. Some are beginning to question at what point sharing becomes a disincentive to running your business like a business.

Mr. Passan would have you believe that the only way to fix MLB's idiotic and counterproductive blackout policy is to jump on to the "share every dollar" bandwagon. That's simply not true at all. Perhaps Mr. Passan could come up with a scheme to make betting on baseball popular. Then it might indeed be possible for MLB to come up with a system that mimics the NFL.

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Comments (2)

It's the final day of the 1993 season. The Braves and Giants are tied for first place. The Braves win a 1:35 start in Atlanta. The Giants will face the Dodgers. The game is on ESPN. Great, I think. Though I'm stuck in Las Vegas for business reasons, at least I can watch this most crucial game in my hotel room.

But I can't. There was a notice that this game was blacked out in this market. It took me a couple of minutes to go through the possibilities until it hit me. Las Vegas must be "Dodgers territory". It struck me as absolutely absurd but at least I had Plan B. I turned on the radio in my room and listened to Vin Scully gleefully dissect the demise of the Giants and coronate Rookie of the Year candidate Mike Piazza (he hit a couple of homers to bury San Fran). Since I was, in those pre-realignment days, rooting for Atlanta, I was happy and I had a nice nugget to share 13 years later.

Yet it was an absurd policy and, in these days when there are so many more potential ways to deliver baseball to a willing audience, incredibly stupid. It's surprising MLB hasn't ganged up to prevent computer or satellite radiocasts from reaching the "home markets". Their attitude hasn't really changed since the 1930s when the three New York clubs clung to a monopolistic policy of not broadcasting Giant, Dodger or Yankee games because obviously the radio would keep fans from attending the ballparks.


Greg, I agree completely on the stupid blackout rules. Someone from MLB just has to realize what a black eye they're getting out of this stupidity.

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