Sorry, baseball fans: These TV networks strike out at online streaming

Contributing Editor
Yahoo Finance

Hope springs anew for baseball fans on opening day — unless your home team still expects you to sign up for an old-school pay-TV bundle to watch games.

A year after sports networks carrying most of Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises began arriving on online-only video services–allowing people to watch almost every game in a variety of streaming apps as part of a $40-and-change package, well below a traditional channel bundle’s cost–seven of those teams continue to treat online viewing of games as a privilege for distant fans.

Fans closer in to those teams’ ballparks — a distance that MLB can define as hundreds of miles — will have to sign up for a cable or satellite bundle to watch. It’s like watching baseball in 2008, except you pay 2018’s TV rates.

Fading regional blackouts

Historically, seeing baseball games online has been the stuff of long-distance relationships. Baseball’s MLB.tv video service has almost always imposed regional blackouts to protect the regional sports networks that air the local team’s games — and that inflate the bills of cable and satellite TV subscribers.

Because MLB defines home-team regions so broadly, people living in a city with only minor-league ball can find themselves blacked out of multiple major-league franchises. Des Moines fans, for example, get no MLB.tv streaming of games involving the Chicago Cubs or White Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Minnesota Twins or the St. Louis Cardinals.

New York Mets’ Adrian Gonzalez its an RBI double during the fifth inning of an opening day baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Thursday, March 29, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)This policy undercuts the appeal of even the free MLB.tv that T-Mobile (TMUS) is giving away to subscribers through April 2.

Regional sports networks spent years balking at letting people pay to watch them on streaming services. But that obstructionism crumbled last year as most of them popped up on the big streaming services: AT&T’s (T) DirecTV Now, Dish Network’s (DISH) Sling TV, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue.

Not all networks appear on all these services, though. The Boston Red Sox’s NESN, for example, is only an online option at Vue and YouTube TV, and the New York Mets’ SNY–since only Wednesday–is on DirecTV Now, Hulu and YouTube TV.

So you need to check with each service to confirm that yours is on its menu. While DirecTV Now, Sling, Hulu, and Vue simply let you plug in your Zip code, YouTube TV blocks that if you’re away from home.

The cheapest bundle usually doesn’t cover these networks. At Sling, for instance, they require the $25 Sling Blue option–and since that drops some channels in the basic $20 Sling Orange package, you may want to step up to paying $40 for Sling Orange + Sling Blue.

Seven teams out

If your home team’s sports network has realized that it’s 2018, great: You can drop your pay-TV bundle and switch to an online service that won’t pad your bill with a hundred channels you don’t want or sock you with monthly fees for cable or satellite boxes.

If that franchise is the Toronto Blue Jays, you don’t even need to pay for an online “skinny bundle” of channels: Their Sportsnet network sells streaming access as a standalone offering for $24.99 Canadian a month.

If, however, your home team is the Baltimore Orioles, the Colorado Rockies, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Seattle Mariners or the Washington Nationals — sorry, it’s back to cable or satellite for you unless some of its games get broadcast on Facebook (FB) as part of its blackout-free deal to carry 25 games.

Fans around Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh and Seattle can blame AT&T, which owns the sports networks for each team but has yet to cut an online-only deal — not even with its own DirecTV Now service.

Around Baltimore and Washington, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has yet to make a move towards online viewing. MASN seems to have forgotten the precedent MLB set in 2005, when baseball let Nats fans watch games online after almost no TV services carried the Orioles-controlled network MLB created to placate Baltimore for moving the Montreal Expos south.

The Dodgers represent the weirdest case of all. Five years after the team created its own SportsNet LA network and sold 25 years of distribution rights to Time Warner Cable for $8.3 billion, only TWC owner Spectrum (CHTR) carries its games. Can anybody blame Dodger fans fed up with this greed-driven debacle if they turn to technical countermeasures to make MLB.tv think they watch from thousands of miles away?

None of those sports networks answered requests for an explanation of a strategy that looks as foolish as walking the opposing team’s pitcher.

What’s the holdup?

Cord cutting is real, and it’s only accelerating. Almost half a million subscribers headed for the exits in the fourth quarter of 2017 alone, according to MoffettNathanson Research–capping off a year in which traditional TV services lost 3.4% of their subscribers, the fastest drop that firm has tracked yet.

The research firm eMarketer — whose 2015 forecast that 20% of American households wouldn’t have cable or satellite TV by 2018 proved to be slightly too conservativepredicted last September that by 2021, the pay-TV contingent will shrink by another 10% to 182 million U.S. households, leaving 81 million households outside that market.

Baseball can get fans to do crazy things, like pay $10 for a beer, travel thousands of miles to follow the team on the road, and stay in the stands through 18 innings of a postseason game. But it’s not going to reverse the cord-cutting trend. Who do these throwback franchises think they’re kidding?

More from Rob:

Big Tech’s accountability-avoidance problem is getting worse

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

 

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