One of the most persistent complaints among baseball fans in recent years—just behind pace of play and ballpark beer prices—is the league’s local blackout policy for online streaming of games. Curmudgeons like me never tire of pointing out that out-of-market fans can watch games on their phones, tablets, and laptops via MLB.TV, while hometown fans cannot. The restrictive policy is meant to protect regional sports networks that pay for the rights to games, a cost they pass along to cable carriers that pass it along to their subscribers.
The good news, baseball fans, is that the league also knows the local blackouts are annoying. In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Bob Bowman, chief executive officer of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which runs the league’s streaming service, said he and the regional carriers are working on a solution. “In the end, we all want the same thing regardless of which side of the table you’re on,” he said. “We all want somebody to be able to turn on a laptop or turn on a phone and see a live game in-market.”
Making that possible depends on restricting local streams to viewers who can show that they are subscribers to a cable package that includes the regional sports network that carries the games. The “authenticated viewer” has become a common solution for cable carriers and programmers trying to deal with a mobile future. It’s not ideal for MLB.TV subscribers who already pay about $130 a year for the service and probably don’t want to futz with another login, but it’s better than nothing. And it protects the league’s cable partners, at least theoretically, from losing business.
According to Bowman, the league, its teams, and their regional carriers are close to sorting out terms. ”If our hands were four feet apart three or four years ago, they are now six inches apart,” he said. The sticking points, he says, are ”the look and the feel of it, the marketing of it, the branding of it, economics.” That last bit seems like a big one.