Rob Manfred has been making the media interview rounds of late, speaking with ESPN, the Los Angeles Times and Fox Sports, among others. But by far, the most interesting interview took place with Maury Brown of Forbes.com, at least from our standpoint, because it is the only interview in which the suboptimal (from the fan’s POV) state of out of market game broadcasts was broached.
The other day, we posted about last week’s ruling in the District Court of Southern New York in which Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected MLB’s petition of a summary judgement against the several fans bringing suit challenging Baseball’s monopoly on delivering broadcasts of games to out of market fans, because of high pricing and lack of availability based on the crazy quilt that is Baseball’s territory map. Every square inch of the United States falls into the territory of one team or another—or even six, in some cases, as demonstrated by this map:
Iowa, in particular, is one of the unluckiest places in the country to be a baseball fan, especially if you’re a fan of the Cubs, White Sox, Twins, Brewers, Cardinals and Royals. It’s even worse when you realize that on some days during the season, as many as 40% of all major league teams are completely unavailable for you to watch (since the blackout affects their opponents that day, as well.)
So unlike the other three vehicles mentioned earlier–all of which are owned by media companies who broadcast major league ballgames–Brown was free to ask the prickly questions about the restrictive broadcast policies to an annoyed commish that the others presumably were not.
Here’s the key question from the Brown interview:
Maury Brown: The #1 customer complaint to MLB.com is about the league’s blackout policy. There are some markets that see as many as 6 teams blacked out due to club TV territories. What would you say to fans that pay to see games, yet wonder why a business would limit its product to them?
Rob Manfred: Television territories that cause these blackouts are integral to the economics of the game. They’re a foundation of the very structure of the league. Blackouts are actually caused, not by our desire not to cover that area, but by the inability of the rights holder to get distribution in certain parts of the television territories. It’s not solely our issue to resolve. Having said that I am aware of these complaints and whenever we have an issue like this we are constantly evaluating how we do business to make sure we are as fan friendly as possible.
Did you get that? MLB blackouts are not caused by asinine MLB blackout policies. MLB blackouts are caused by ineffectual broadcast partners who are unable to get distribution in the affected areas, many of which are outside of the DMA in which the team is located, and some of which are over 1,000 miles away from where the team plays. So if you want to watch any of the blacked out teams on TV, you better subscribe to satellite or cable AND hope you have an RSN on your system that offers your favorite team. Because if you don’t, you are SOL (“so out of luck”).
It strikes me as disingenuous that MLB should blame their rights-holding partners for the inability to broadcast games in certain areas because of the way Baseball themselves drew up the map. After all, MLB could open up huge swaths of territory that does not host any major league teams and allow them to be free of such broadcast restrictions, if they so wanted. Digital commercial insertion technology exists that could deliver local or regional commercials, the same ones that local RSNs show to their viewers in the area, to those in the area who are watching on Extra Innings or MLB.TV as well. So there could be a revenue stream that could mollify the RSNs on that front.
One thing is pretty clear from Brown’s interview, however: Manfred thinks MLB’s out of market broadcast policy is peachy just the way it is. And to change it, it’s going to take nothing less than overturning the broadcast monopoly that MLB presumes they have in court.