Rob Manfred Says Ending Blackouts is ‘Business Objective No. 1 at MLB’

If Rob Manfred isn’t careful, people might actually start liking him. Attendance took a big leap across Major League Baseball this past season — unless you’re looking at Tuesday’s Rays/Rangers playoff game — as game times were trimmed by over 20 minutes and steals hit a 36-year high. The next step may be to ensure that as many people as possible can actually watch those games without being blacked out.

“Whatever exclusivity we give to a particular cable provider, we ought to be able to go side-by-side with a digital product so that people are not blacked out,” Manfred told the Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. “And that is business objective number one at Major League Baseball right now.”

That would be huge for baseball fans in Iowa, who are considered “local” for at least six teams (Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Twins, Cardinals, and Royals) and thus can only watch games carried by their local provider. An subscription is actually worse for Iowans because they can’t view any of those teams through it, a problem that is compounded now that the league has gone to a balanced schedule.

Those fans who truly are local but have opted to cut the cord are likewise hosed when it comes to the league’s subscription service. There have been small victories in some markets as regional sports networks begin offering their programming on a stand-alone basis, allowing those without cable or satellite providers to access games. Marquee Sports Network launched its new app a few months ago for that reason and it saved my household some money because we were able to downgrade our Xfinity package.

Thing is, that still doesn’t solve the local market problem. I’m able to get Marquee because I’m considered to be in the Cubs’ broadcast territory, but I can’t watch games through my app if I happen to be traveling outside said territory. It makes no sense because it’s not as though I can access the games in some other fashion, particularly if the Cubs are playing outside of the market to which I just traveled.

At this point, the only way for a cord-cutter or frequent flyer to ensure access to their team’s games at all times would be to subscribe to both and the local provider/DTC streamer of their choice. It’s clunky and not at all ideal, but that’s the situation we’re in with rules that were established long ago to protect providers’ local advertising rights.

“When clubs make long-term RSN agreements, they historically have granted exclusivity that covers both sides of the house to that cable provider,” Manfred explained. “And if the cable provider doesn’t get distribution in a particular area, you have a blackout, right? And that’s beyond our control. That’s the product of a contractual arrangement between an individual club and an RSN, and that’s the one that has been hard to deal with.”

So how does this get fixed in the end? The easiest way would be for MLB to take control of local broadcasts, which it has started doing with some of the teams that had agreements with Bally RSNs that went belly-up as part of Diamond Sports Group’s epic failure. While the league obviously can’t house all the teams’ broadcasts, at least not anytime soon, eliminating those exclusivity agreements with even a handful of organizations would be a big step in the right direction.

The next logical step would be to eliminate the competitive gatekeeping that prevents Marquee from selling its services to Cubs fans in other markets. Imagine how much more revenue would be generated by being able to sign up people in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and everywhere else in the country for $20 per month. Tom Ricketts won’t be able to stand out without embarrassment for a while at the mere thought of those wheelbarrows of cash rolling in.

There are a lot of moving parts to this whole thing and I don’t believe the solution will be either immediate or sweeping, but it does at least appear as though the league is moving steadily toward ending blackouts. Now if they could just figure out how to contract the Brewers.

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