As reported in April, one of the topics that will be covered today at the Owners Meetings in New York will revolve around blackout restrictions for packages such as MLB Extra Innings.
For those that may not be aware of how difficult, convoluted, and arcane the blackout situation is, you can live in the Carolinas and be considered in Orioles and Nationals broadcast territory. Live in Las Vegas, and you are blacked out from the Padres, Giants, A’s, Dodgers, Angels, and Diamondbacks.
As I said… arcane and convoluted.
MLB has been getting beat up on this matter for years as fans get hit between the eyes with the policy when they don’t read the extra fine print.
So, there seems to have been enough pressure applied from the fans and press to break the inertia on this matter. As I'll get to, the change also has to do with the upcoming MLB Network. Selig and Co. will address the issue of the blackout policy today at the meeting in New York.
Here’s some advice: Don’t look for any changes in the near future, but expect something by 2009.
What is expected to come out of the meeting is unclear. MLB will ask owners to review their broadcast territories, and revise them. This is a matter of self-governance that should provide some interesting feedback. After all, Peter Angelos drove a hard bargain around what he defined as Orioles television territory when the Expos were relocated to Washington, D.C. and christened the Nationals. How much incentive is there for an owner to give up (read: “revise”) television broadcast territory? According to sources, plenty.
John Helyar reports through ESPN:
Selig's broadcasts execs are expected to take a "use it or lose" approach when they push the reforms. They want to give clubs a year to justify their current broadcast territories, based on where their games are actually available or where they have a reasonable prospect of becoming available. If Oakland has no justification for continuing to stake a claim to Oregon, for example, then it's out of Oregon. The territorial map would be redrawn according to current digital-age realities.
The “digital-age realities” are that the television territory policy was initially created based on over-the-air reach, not as cable and the proliferation of regional sports networks (RSNs) have grown. What was once a case of just Ted Turner and one Superstation has turned into growing system of overlapping broadcast areas.
As mentioned, don’t expect for the parties to come out of today’s meeting and suddenly, the Orioles fan in Charlotte will be able to watch games when the click on Extra Innings. Change will take time given the complexities and the almost certain owner mentality that will say “What’s mine is mine. I’m not giving it up without a fight.”
But the change has to come shortly. While the issue has created waves with the advent of MLB Extra Innings, it will create a tsunami when the MLB Network goes online in 2009.
MLB pushed for the package to be carried on the basic tier and won that battle. So, with showing games on the MLB Network, they deal with 40 million subscribers, as opposed to a few hundred thousand subscribed to Extra Innings.
Oh, by the way, the chances of MLB completely scrapping the blackout seem about as likely as the Royals winning the World Series this year. The nationally broadcasted FOX and ESPN games seem a lock to remain exclusive given the dollars and deals already in play.
Maury Brown is the founder and president of The Business of Sports Network, of which The Biz of Baseball is a member. He is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and can be contacted here.