Friday, April 1, 2011

Another Season of MLB's Ridiculous Blackout Policies

While watching my Mets lose their first Opening Day game in six years, the masochist in me decided to take a look at the subscription package for this year, so that I can be as connected as possible to every excruciating moment the Metropolitans are likely to put me through. My first impression was a good one, with the availability of high-definition video and a wide array of client devices, as well as audio feeds, fantasy player tracking, and DVR-type controls on some platforms. Then the ugly truth stuck me anew - YOU STILL CAN'T WATCH YOUR HOME TEAM PLAY LIVE!

Today's technologies have made streaming video ubiquitous, and Major League Baseball has been surprisingly adept in keeping up with the many available outlets for IP video. This year's package offers a wide array of viewing options for your subscription - iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, Apple TV, PC, Roku, Boxee, Android, Samsung and LG televisions and more.

MLB Blackout Map
However, MLB broadcasts continue to be governed by a Blackout Policy which blocks local users from seeing their home team play live - home or away. Do a search for "Blackout Policy" and you will find legions of disillusioned fans who found this out AFTER subscribing. While the details are there in the fine print, marketing banners like this season's "Watch Baseball Everywhere" are nothing but deceptive - "Watch Baseball Everywhere UNLESS It Is Your Home Team Playing At Home Or Away, Or Any Team On Saturdays If It Starts Before 7:05 Or Sundays After 5:00pm Or If It Is The Post Season Or Even A Play-In Game" would be more accurate, but I guess it lacks the snap you look for in a catchy slogan.

I remember in the early days of streaming baseball, I found myself in Boston unable to watch a Mets/Yankees game on TV. I signed up for MLB's service, and found that I was unable to view the game because the address on my credit card was from New York, even though I was physically outside the blackout area - very frustrating! Over the last couple of years, has progressed to a system which targets your location based on your IP address at the time. This seems fair, since it follows the blackout policy, but it also opened the door to the use of proxy servers to bypass the location detection - bounce your requests through a server in another city and you appear to be coming from outside the banned region. Now, the new promises to throw your personal privacy to the wind by using your devices' location awareness against you: "Note live game blackouts are determined in part by IP address. At Bat live game blackouts are determined using one or more reference points, such as GPS and software within your mobile device." So there is some kind of cryptic algorithm being used to suss out my true location? Great. I am sure nothing else will be done with my location data like gathering it for marketing purposes or reselling it, right?

There was talk that the Blackout Policy might be reevaluated at the 2008 owner's meetings, but the overwhelming spotlight of the steroid investigation seemingly pushed this topic to the side and it does not appear to have been revisited since. There are also some examples of crazy gerrymandering that has gone on, such as baseball fans in Nevada being blacked out as a "home team area" for the Dodgers, Angels, Diamondbacks, A's, Giants and Padres - this even precludes cable affiliates from showing these six teams live on television in Las Vegas, even though none of the home broadcast stations that are supposedly being protected are available locally! It also led to 3 million Cablevision subscribers in New York being unable to watch the first game of last year's NLCS.

The Blackout Policy is incredibly anachronistic and arbitrary. For an organization that seems to "get it" on technology and portability of their subscription service, being hamstrung by these rules to the point that no one can watch their home team live is just crazy. While TV contracts surely have something to do with this, allowing old media dinosaurs to control your content distribution is business suicide in today's market. Of course, as a monopoly, MLB doesn't truly play in a free market, so they can get away with it. I would love to have the FCC take a look at this instead of the useless censorship crusades it favors. By neutering a product that is highly sought after, only relevant when available as a live stream and of the greatest value to home town fans, continues to strike out for another season.


  1. Seth Macfarlane had this one right

  2. Looks like you'll be all right if you move to southwest Florida. Did you buy the MLB video package?

  3. I did not subscribe - looking for the least restrictive way to go, and curious to see how this year's workarounds turn out, before committing to anything. Maybe my best bet would be to give up on the Mets and root for an out-of-town team so I can actually watch them...

  4. Can't view the RedSox from my iPad but it works fine through a cheap VPN service on my computer. I will give MLB money as long as I can watch the RedSox online. If they block the VPN solution, then they won't receive my money. I don't see why this is hard for them to understand.

  5. I live in Nashville and still can't watch the Reds. It's ridiculous. Different state and five hours away!!!