MLB Has A Viewership Problem, But It’s Not Because Of The On-Field Product

MLB, we have a problem, and (this time) it has nothing to do with Houston.

Forgive what will surely be a disorganized stream of consciousness…

Major League Baseball has been hellbent on telling its fans how bad and boring the game is for many years now.

The issue — they hammered into our brains — is pace of play. All the homeruns and strikeouts, while exciting on their own, make the game terrible if their numbers grow. And pitching changes, oh those awful pitching changes. Did you know that from 2014 to 2018, the number of relief appearances per game increase by a whopping .77 appearances per game, or roughly 3 more appearances for every 4 games?!

“Wow, that is really slowing things down,” they thought, “we should implement a 3-batter rule that would have affected all of 4% of situations in 2019. That will really make the game more appealing.”

Ok, ok. I’m done. MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred are in love with implementing stupid rules that are purely cosmetic and barely affect the game at all, let alone in a positive way.

And they do it all in the name of growing the game, or promoting viewership in a culture where alternative viewing options are literally at our fingertips.

The thing is, the problem with viewership — read as: losing viewers — has next to nothing to do with the product on the field. Baseball fans like baseball. Especially when some crotchety color analyst isn’t spending the entire broadcast complaining about ‘advanced analytics’ and ‘launch angle’ and how the game was so much better when they played. 

The issue is that actually viewing the game — in 24/7 access culture of 2020 — keeps getting harder to do.

Blackouts

MLB has a great service in place that should be helping with viewership, MLB.tv. However, the service is designed to allow viewers access to out-of-market games, which is too say, a fan in New York can watch Dodgers’ games, for example.

Games that are in-market are blacked out, because those games are available via a Regional Sports Network from your local television providers.

That makes sense and is fine, in theory.

The reality is that huge parts of the country are blacked out to teams that they cannot get via local television.

For example, in Des Moines, Iowa the base package for Hulu + Live TV (which includes the local RSN) has FS Midwest, FS North, and NBC Sports Chicago. Those channels will get you home games for the Cardinals, Twins, and White Sox. Unavailable (unless done through add-ons which are available nationwide in expanded sports packages) are the Royals, Brewers, and Cubs. However, despite not having those teams as part of the local TV package, they are blacked out on MLB.tv.

This varies by location, but that’s the general idea.

This is a map of what MLB considers in-market:

 

Here are some highlights. The state of Iowa and southern Nevada are considered to be in-market for 6 teams. Arkansas and Oklahoma are in-market for four. I would assume that not all viewers in those areas can receive the regional sports network for all of those teams simultaneously, without paying through the nose.

So there is a viewership problem in that overly restrictive blackouts leave some areas unable to access the teams that they want to access.

That doesn’t grow the game.

Sinclair and the Regional Sports Networks

To take it one step further, the reason for MLB.tv’s blackout policy — the availability of in-market games on local TV — is being weakened by the companies that run the RSN’s. Namely, Sinclair Broadcasting, which purchased the bulk of the FOX Sports networks from Disney last year. In short, they are asking for big money in contract negotiations which eventually stall and end up with a TV provider dropping the channel.

Let me share my story.

At my house, which is maybe 2 miles from the city limits of my decent-sized rural town, I have 1) no ground-based high speed internet available and 2) no cable available.

I have one option for internet, a local wireless ISP, and my television options are satellite or streaming over the internet. I choose streaming because it is cost effective.

My family was very happy with Sling TV, besides having Fox Sports Midwest to watch my Cardinals games, we also had several channels that weren’t offered by other streaming services (Viacom channels like Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, etc, and Hallmark/Lifetime Movies). We chose Sling for a reason, it was the best total package for the money.

Then last summer, the dire commercials and Danny Mac live reads started happening during Cardinals’ games:

“DISH is dropping your favorite teams from their lineup! Visit blah.savelocalteams.blahblah to tell them you want to keep your local sports!”

Those big bad television providers were up to no good, I tell ya!

DISH owns Sling, and therefore I was loosing the Cardinals if the contracts weren’t worked out.

They weren’t, and I had to seek an alternative. I did a week long trial of YouTube TV, which was excellent, but I ultimately added Live TV to my Hulu subscription because it resulted in roughly a monthly savings of $6 vs adding YouTube TV, and with some adjustments to my Sling subscription, I was able to keep the channels my family liked and my baseball for an extra $13/mo. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t awful. I cancelled the Live TV from Hulu after the season ended.

So as I prepared for baseball season, I began shopping:

Once again, as I did on 2019, I was hoping to keep my desired Sling channels and add Cardinals baseball, somehow.

“Have DISH/Sling worked out a contract yet? Google. Nope.”

“Ok, well let me check the price and lineups of YouTube TV vs Hulu+TV again…channels still aren’t as good as Sling and…WHOA they’ve both raised their price by $20 this year. Man, I’ve already scaled back my Sling subscription as much as I can, so I can’t find relief there like I did last year. So…that’s just a straight $50/mo subscription just to get my Cardinals games? Let’s see, March, April…….seven months if I want to watch some spring games…that’s $350 this summer just for one channel. That’s not something I’m going to do.”

“Let me look around, what is this Philo TV for $20/mo? Oh, no live sports.”

“Playstation VUE? No, looks like they lost FS Midwest, too and are ending all together.”

“Ok, here’s that FuboTV that had the annoying commercials a couple years ago…JACKPOT! Almost the same lineup as Sling AND FS Midwest is listed, all for just $8 more than I’m paying now. I can swing that! Let me sign up for the free trial and test it out… Hmm… I’m not finding FSMW in the guide… Let me Google it… Ah, looks like the channel was dropped on January 1st due to failed contract negotiations. Big surprise. Nevermind.”

“…Hey Mom and Dad, what’s the login info for your TV subscription?”

Today, as I scrolled through Twitter, I learned that as of February 29th, YouTube TV will no longer be carrying Fox Sports Midwest (or any of the Sinclair owned RSN’s nationwide) due to failed contract negotiations.

Remember how the network was painting DISH as the faulty party last summer? What can they say now that 5 providers (4 parent companies) have now lost the networks due to failed negotiations? 5 Providers that have 15+ million households nationwide. DISH is the 4th largest television provider in the country — behind AT&T (DirecTV), Comcast, and Charter Spectrum — and the networks that broadcast most local MLB games aren’t available with their service.

Even though, for my own reasons, I wasn’t going to choose YouTube TV, it was an option. Not anymore.

Now, if I want to subscribe to a provider that has FS Midwest — at my house — the choices are Hulu ($55/mo), DirectTV ($70/mo for 12 mos w/contract yada, yada…), or AT&T TV NOW ($65/mo).

All are more expensive than my preferred option, Sling, and don’t match up on the channels I watch outside of baseball. (Trust me, I had a large spreadsheet doing side-by-side channel comps at one point.)

Now, my rural locale is unique and limiting. Folks in more populous areas with a cable option, or AT&T U-Verse have a couple more choices, and that’s great. But it doesn’t change that Sinclair is forcing baseball fans to choose from a shrinking list of TV providers — one that maybe they don’t want — just to maintain their fandom.

Hulu is owned by Disney and Comcast, companies large enough to probably stomach the RSN contracts. The same can be said for DirecTV/AT&T. Those subscribers are probably safe. But how long until smaller regional cable companies can’t handle it anymore? Heck, Comcast — Chicago’s largest TV provider — isn’t even carrying the Cubs’ new Marquee network, yet.

Quick jump back to Hulu. So, Disney bought most of 20th Century Fox, including RSN’s, but since Disney owns ESPN, they had to sell those RSN’s for anti-trust reasons. They sold them to Sinclair Broadcasting, who is now failing to reach contracts with providers, pushing viewers — streaming users, at least — to Hulu…owned by Disney. So in cases where fans switch to Hulu to get their team, Disney still gets the money off of the network it sold. House of Mouse is doing dirty. (Credit @SchmidtKiersten of CNBC on Twitter for making that connection.)

Some will make switches. Some internet savvy will find under-the-table means of watching. Some will be stubborn and go without.

For a visual, here’s a map of the the coverage of Sinclair’s regional sports networks in MLB. It’s huge.

(This map and the MLB.tv blackout map can be found in this article from FanGraphs)

The bottom line is that the owner of the broadcast rights for most of the MLB coverage area in the United States — including its 3 largest markets in NY, LA, and Chicago — is making access to the game more limited.

Meanwhile, baseball fans in Iowa and Oklahoma are complaining because they are blacked out on MLB.tv from watching a team that plays 400 miles and a 6 hour drive away.

And MLB is sitting idly by, letting it all happen.

I take that back. They aren’t sitting idly by. They have all kinds of solutions…

Their solution is a 3-batter minimum. Their solution is not making a pitcher take 30 seconds to throw 4 balls for an intentional walk. Their solution is reducing the generously enforced 30 seconds to decide to challenge to what will surely be a generously enforced 20 seconds. Collectively shaving…eh, 3-5 minutes from the length of game.

Their solution is pushing for a pitch clock (that most pitchers work within the parameters of anyway), toying with putting an unearned runner on 2B in extra innings, and experimenting with pitching distance and electronic strike zones in the Atlantic League.

None of these things will draw more eyes to the game.

You know what will, actually having the games available for eyes to watch.

Get it together MLB.

Thanks for reading.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cubs3223.582 -
Cardinals2725.5193.5
Reds2828.5004.5
Brewers2727.5004.5
Pirates1639.29116.0

Last updated: 09/23/2020

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