Cooper: MLB Blackouts Impact Baseball Fans’ Ability To Witness History


Image credit: Jackson Holliday (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

At this point, I’m used to it.

Adley Rutschman’s MLB debut? Missed it.

Gunnar Henderson’s? Missed it.

Grayson Rodriguez’s? Same.

So Jackson Holliday’s much anticipated MLB arrival was off limits to me, and almost anyone else in North Carolina (as well as many viewers in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.)

You know why.

MLB Blackout
MLB Blackout

It’s a bane of baseball.

(And yes, I know there are ways around it. Please don’t tell me I should be scouring Reddit threads or using VPNs, I’m talking about how this should be solved for fans in an easy/legal/non-technical way my parents could understand).

Days like yesterday are a frequent reminder of what baseball loses because of an arcane system. Most baseball fans in North Carolina couldn’t watch Holliday’s debut, even though they live a six-hour drive away from Camden Yards. Big Inning (which doesn’t black out pop-ins) helps, but as the O’s have gone from afterthought to AL East champs, for me their stars go from must-watch TV in the minors to can’t watch TV when they reach the majors.

Our blind spots in Eastern North Carolina are Orioles and Nationals games. No matter where you live in the U.S., you are likely blacked out of at least one team, and if you live in Iowa, becomes semi-useless with six teams on the blackout list.

It’s a problem for baseball, and one that MLB knows it has to fix.

“Blackouts are the kind of opposite side of the coin of reach. We need to deliver product to fans who want to watch on platforms that they customarily use at a realistic price. That is our No. 1 priority,” Rob Manfred told reporters at a 2023 press conference.

It’s easy to blame Major League Baseball for the problem, but it’s more reasonable to criticize MLB for allowing the problem to develop years ago. MLB officials have made it clear they realize the blackout system is bad for the sport’s growth. And whenever MLB has taken over a team’s RSN rights, it’s provided a way for people in that local market to stream games without blackouts.

Blackouts are an artifact of a different media world. In the 1980s/1990s when many of these regional sports networks sprung up, if you paid for television, you had your local cable system. Streaming wasn’t even a possibility in an era of 56K modems. There was very little choice, and even when satellite TV sprung up, your choices went from one provider to two or three.

Everyone who paid for TV channels in an area had cable or satellite. Your local teams were on the cable system (and on DirectTV), so no matter where you lived, you got to see your closest teams, whether they were local or not.

And that led to plenty of greed, which only added to the problem. There should have always been a rule that any area can only be within the “local” market of two teams at most. And logically, those markets should have had radiuses of a few hundred miles. If you live a day’s drive from any big league ballpark, no team is your “local” team.

Instead of tying blackout regions logically, it became a land grab with teams trying to claim as large an area as possible for their “local” footprint. That’s how you end up with the Cardinals, Twins, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers and Royals all claiming Iowa as home turf.

Something should have been done about that in the 1990s/2000s, as it defies logic to expect any cable system to carry six (!) different regional sports networks. All this did was ensure that baseball fans in Iowa would have no reason to try to watch a lot of MLB games.

But the blackout system in general made at least some sense in a world dominated by cable TV. In 2024, it just doesn’t. As cable systems saw vast swaths of their customers cut the cord, they focused more and more on cutting the fees they pay to channels. And RSNs, which had usually negotiated placement on the most basic cable TV tier, were a logical target.

Non-sports fans were paying significant chunks of ever-growing cable bills to RSN channels they never watched. As Internet TV providers sprung up, they found they could offer lower-cost bundles by avoiding adding these niche channels.

So nowadays, if I wanted to get MASN (the Orioles’ TV network) in North Carolina, I can’t get it through my local cable system. MASN lists only five cable systems in the entire state of North Carolina that offer it, and three of those are cable systems serving cities of fewer than 10,000 people. I can’t get it through the vast multitude of Internet TV providers (YouTube TV, Hulu, Sling, etc.). DirectTV is the only real option.

There’s some version of this story happening all around the country. Even diehard fans are unlikely to pick a TV provider solely because it offers an RSN, but in many cases, it’s not even an option. We now live in a world where a baseball fan may not even have a realistic option to pay to watch their “local” team.

And with this, baseball loses chances to get casual fans excited about these moments. It’s a problem that hopefully is nearing its expiration point.

By the time Ethan Holliday reaches the major leagues, hopefully these blackouts will be as much an ancient memory as The Baseball Network or radio-only games.

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