On the heels on an interview Maury Brown of Forbes.com had with Rob Manfred, the new MLB Commissioner, in which the latter’s statement that Baseball’s blackout policy is a by-product of a territories system that is the “foundation of the very structure of the league”—a statement that blazed a trail throughout the American social media landscape all this week—comes word from Brown that MLB and Fox are in negotiations to air all Fox regional sports networks (RSN) baseball broadcasts into local markets via streaming, something that has been unavailable since the beginning of streaming.
Under the plan, MLB Advanced Media is seeking to stream games broadcast by Fox RSNs within the team’s local market through their MLB.TV app, which is available on computers such as PC and Mac desktops and laptops; through set-top devices such as Xbox, Playstations, Apple TV, smart TVs and the like; and through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets using the MLB At Bat app. Fox Sports would also like to participate in the streaming action, showing games on their own Fox Sports Go app which is also available most if not all the same devices. Brown says this control of the stream is a major sticking point holding up the agreement, which is said to be in the late stages of negotiation.
As Brown indicates, an agreement between Fox and MLB would free about 40% of all regional and local broadcasts to be streamed within their teams’ local markets, since that represents Fox’s share of such broadcasts. The other major RSNs operated by Comcast and Root Sports don’t appear to be part of the talks; nor are RSNs owned and/or run by teams themselves, such as YES (Yankees), MASN (Orioles), NESN (Red Sox) and a few others.
From a user standpoint, viewers would log into their MLB.TV account, authenticate their pay-TV service’s credentials while doing so, and if successful, be released from their local blackout. It’s not clear from Brown’s article whether users would need to authenticate pay-TV credentials when logging into MLB.TV upfront, or separately when trying to specifically access their Fox local market game, but if MLB follows the path of making the most sense it would definitely be the latter, since that would mean a cord cutter wouldn’t be able to use MLB.TV at all, for lack of upfront pay-TV credentials.
Speaking of whom: assuming this last point is true, cord cutters are still losers under this arrangement, since they would have no pay-TV log in credentials to use to bypass their local blackout. Well, at least technically that’s true, as it is well understood that many people with login credentials for Netflix, Hulu and other pay services freely and gladly share those credentials with friends and family who have no such credentials. But if you had to pick one and only one company who could figure out a way to undermine that kind of sharing, though, wouldn’t MLBAM have to be your first, if not only, guess, since their business model promotes restricting access as much as possible? They would be mine, anyway.
However, when you think about it, it becomes clear that neither MLB nor their partner broadcasters care much for cord cutters anyway, for obvious reasons. For one thing, they’re not pay TV customers, and furthermore probably won’t become customers anytime soon, and the relationship between the broadcasters and MLB is strong enough that MLB wouldn’t risk offending their broadcaster partners by trying to do some kind of end-around to get cord cutters on board the blackout removal train. For another thing, cord cutters are a very small percentage of total households, less than 11% in total, so in terms of scale of effort versus return on investment, it just wouldn’t be worth MLB’s time.
Also losing in this arrangement, as it stands today, would be MLB.TV customers in the very largest DMAs (i.e., TV markets) in the country, as well as the ancillary DMAs that belong within their MLB territories. Of the top ten DMAs, eight of them do not have Fox among their local RSNs: New York; Los Angeles (outside of Orange County); Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco-Oakland; Boston; Washington DC; and Houston. These eight DMAs make up 25% of all the TV households in the country, and when you add the secondary markets within their teams’ territories into the mix, it probably adds another five to ten points to that number (source: author’s SWAG).
Nevertheless, this does seem to be a decent first step towards solving the MLB blackout conundrum that has vexed not only the actual business of Major League Baseball, but also the public’s perception of Major League Baseball as a business, which has not been held in the highest of esteem for some time. Little by each, however—we’ll accept and applaud these first steps as the Big Baby takes them.