I live in what might be the only city in the country that I can not legally watch Philadelphia Phillies baseball games. All internet streaming Phillies broadcasts are blacked out and the vast majority of regular season games are not shown on television. Being a lifelong Phillies fan, this disturbs me. The reasons for it reveal the sad state of Major League Baseball's blackout policy.
I live in Carlisle, PA, a city that lies in central Pennsylvania and has a population of around 20,000. It has no major or minor league sports teams of its own, but lies at a crossroads between a number of major sports cities. It is around two hours from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., and about three hours from Pittsburgh. Because of its unique location it is considered the home market of every baseball team from all four of those cities.
Home markets in Major League Baseball are drawn according to a geographic area surrounding the city. However, these areas are not exclusive, and certain areas overlap, so that you can have a city that has multiple home markets, such as Carlisle. The area these markets are drawn is ideally supposed to be the same area that gets the local television broadcasts of the team. Thus, if you live in the home market of any team, you should be able to get all their regular season games on your television.
However, that is merely the ‘ideal’ way home markets should work, and they many times break down. In Carlisle, while it is technically a home market for the Philadelphia Phillies, almost none of their regular season broadcasts are shown here. In most areas of the Phillies home market, games are shown on the Philadelphia Comcast Sportsnet channel, however, in Carlisle we get the bizarro Mid-Atlantic Comcast Sportsnet channel which doesn't show any Phillies games and mostly concentrates on Washington and Baltimore sports.
However, not getting a team’s local broadcasts on television is not usually the worst thing, because you should then be able to see the games on either the MLB Extra Innings or MLB.tv packages. A number of years ago MLB created these packages as a way for people to watch ‘out of market’ games that they wouldn’t normally be able to see. They opened this up to being able to watch it through your cable package, or on your computer/iPhone/iPad, etc… Thus, in theory one should at all times be able to watch every single MLB broadcast, either the home market local broadcasts on regular television, or the out of market broadcasts through the packages.
However, the MLB’s labyrinth of blackout rules ruins this ideal set up. Both the MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv packages blackout all games of teams that are part of your home market. This supposedly is meant to protect local television affiliates from having viewers taken away who watch through the package… although the package usually broadcasts the same feed as the local channel. That’s where I enter a no-man’s land by living in Carlisle, PA. For some unknown reason, Carlisle is designated as a home market for the Phillies, blacking out all their games, even though almost none of their regular season games are shown on local television here.1
Thus, as long as I am standing in Carlisle, PA, I can’t watch Phillies broadcasts. However, if I go a half hour to the west in Chambersburg, PA, Phillies games are not shown on television, but also are not blacked out in the packages. If I go a half hour to the east in Harrisburg, PA, Phillies games are blacked out in the packages, but shown on local television. Therefore, this tiny strip of land in Central PA is the only spot in the entire country that one can not legally watch Phillies games. It is purgatory for a Phillies fan.
Now, I realize I’m more of a fringe case here in Carlisle, however, the blackout rules cause chaos in many other parts of the country. There are similar blackout issues in Iowa, North Carolina, and Connecticut. Additionally, Las Vegas is considered the home market for every baseball team in California and Arizona, six in all, notwithstanding the fact Las Vegas isn’t in California or Arizona. All this leads to a mismatch of markets and blackout rules that frustrates many fans.2
Even if you disregard these absurd examples, I think there’s a deeper problem with blackout rules in general. The fact MLB has created this infrastructure to watch games on portable digital devices, such as smart phones and tablets, shows they see this as the future of watching sports. However, the only games one can watch on those devices are out of market games. This is a huge problem because I assume most people root for their local teams, and thus, the vast majority of people can not watch their local teams on portable devices and are stuck having to watch them on traditional television.
This problem could be easily fixed if the MLB simply did away with local blackout rules. Instead, when you signed up for the Extra Innings or MLB.tv packages you would get every single game, no matter where you were. This would obviously benefit consumers, as they could now watch their local teams everywhere, even when they are away from their television. It would also benefit the MLB, as I’m sure it would drive up the number of subscribers to the packages. I would even argue it would benefit local broadcasters, as their broadcasts are the ones actually shown through the packages, so having more people watching their broadcasts should only help them.3
The only party I think this might harm would be cable providers, as it might lead to a number of people cutting the cord and getting rid of cable all together. Maybe that it the true force keeping these byzantine blackout rules on the books, as I don’t see any other reason to continue to have them. I hope MLB addresses this absurd situation and eliminates blackout rules and fully embraces the future of sports broadcasting.
1. An occasional Phillies game is shown on the local CW channel, mostly Sunday afternoon games. In addition, games the Phillies play between Washington, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh teams are shown. However, most nationally broadcast Phillies games on ESPN are blacked out on both ESPN and the packages, which makes little sense to me. ↩
2. This is not exclusive to just the MLB, as the NFL, NBA, and NHL have similar blackout issues in regards to their out of market packages. The NFL also has an additional blackout rule that a game will not be shown locally if the stadium is not sold out, however that rule doesn’t apply to other leagues' games.↩
3. There is the issue that the actual local broadcasts’ commercials are not shown in the packages, although I would assume that could be changed so you simply would watch local commercials along with the broadcast. ↩