As a Mets fan living in Los Angeles, it’s normally pretty easy for me to watch Mets games through MLB.tv. It’s not like I live in Las Vegas or Iowa, where six separate teams have claimed local broadcasting rights. I will only get a local blackout if the Mets are playing the Dodgers or Angels. I’m even fortunate enough to be in the roughly 30 percent of Angelinos who actually get Dodgers games on television after a long standoff between Time Warner Cable and other television providers. I could write in the morning, watch the Mets and then write some more after the game. It’s a great setup for a baseball fan!
Then came Saturdays. On most Saturdays the Mets will be broadcast locally and there isn’t any problem. But the Mets are a big market team, and national television broadcasters like those big markets. Fox has gobbled up three games per week for it’s national broadcast. Of course, you get the matchup that is selected for your area. Every other game was blacked out, even though I paid to watch out-of-market games through MLB.tv. It’s interesting to compare Fox’s treatment of baseball to ESPN/ABC’s treatment of college football. ESPN/ABC moved to one national college football game of the week in prime time and regional coverage the rest of the day. Crucially they were an early adopter of putting out-of-market games online for ESPN subscribers. Fox built their online watching app much later and has largely resisted putting out-of-market games on the app.
For years I was forced to choose between listening to the Mets on the radio and watching players swing the bat. Baseball can be a great game for radio. But it’s also a game where power pitching has become more important. Words alone cannot fully capture Noah Syndergaard’s arsenal of pitches! We remember highlights as visuals, not just announcer calls. Early in the season I would always choose the Mets. At the end of a bad season, it was a harder call. Do I really want to hear Howie Rose describe how the Mets are stumbling to a quick 5-0 deficit? Sometimes I would turn on Fox just to watch a game–that’s why networks pushed leagues to have blackout rules in the first place. Usually I would turn off baseball altogether for the day.
Over the last year Fox has made it easier to watch in-market games. If you subscribe to a Fox regional sports network, you can watch a game broadcast by any Fox RSN over MLB.tv with no blackout restrictions. This made it easier for Mets fans in the Midwest, since the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers are among the teams covered in the deal. It doesn’t help Mets fans living in areas with other sports networks. If I didn’t have Time Warner Cable, I couldn’t watch the Mets play the Dodgers.
Fox also made a much quieter change this season: many of their national Saturday games have only been regional blackouts instead of national ones. A few weeks ago I got to watch the Mets play the Marlins. Last week I got to watch Bartolo Colon drive the Cubs crazy with his fastball that tailed back over the strike zone. The current MLB.com blackout policy says certain games will have national blackouts while others will only have regional blackouts. It is very difficult to know which Fox games are regional blackouts. Both of the games I watched were listed as “national” blackouts instead of regional ones. At this point it is unclear if Fox is doing this as a trial or as a new policy going forward.
Watching an out-of-market Fox broadcast via MLB.tv is a bit different than just turning on your television. I didn’t test out whether I could pause or rewind these games like other games in MLB.tv. I find having the ability to scroll down and check a box score (or the home plate umpire’s name) in the same window to be very handy. Like many streaming services, MLB.tv is lagged by a little over a minute. If you have the phone app giving you notifications, you will get a notification that someone scored before seeing it on your screen yourself. You’ll have the same problem if you constantly update Twitter. It’s surprisingly hard to tweet about the game since you’ll often be a batter behind everyone else.
The unique thing about watching a Fox game via mlb.tv is the ability to get local radio announcers instead of the Fox announcers. Over the last two weeks I was only able to get the home team’s announcers. I spent most of last Saturday’s game watching Fox’s video while listening to Howie Rose to test out the experience. Each crack of the bat let me know they synch up perfectly. It is a bit disorienting when Fox zooms in on one thing in between pitches and Rose discusses something else. Fox aims their broadcasts for people who may only watch the Mets or Cubs once a week at most, so they will show David Wright in the dugout like it’s a brand new story. Radio broadcasters follow the team all season, so they picked up Brandon Nimmo drawing his first big league walk after following Wally Backman’s advice to be more aggressive instead of his very patient approach in the low minors.
When Laz Diaz’s strike zone got more contentious last Saturday, I switched back and forth from WOR to Fox’s announcers. Both announcing crews questioned whether pitches were strikes. One of the main reasons I was so excited to finally watch Mets games that used to be blacked out is so I could see these borderline pitches and reach my own conclusion. Radio simply can’t do that. Unfortunately, Fox didn’t show many replays of key or controversial pitches. Their broadcast could certainly be better. Still, it is a better experience to be able to watch the game versus just having radio of Diaz’s strike zone and having to imagine what it looks like.
With streaming video being so common today it makes sense to let people stream out-of-market games. Fox should look at this as a potential extra revenue stream as opposed to a threat to their TV ratings. Baseball’s audience is based on specific teams and local fanbases more than people who will watch whatever baseball game is on that week. There may be ways that Fox could build on putting out-of-market Saturday games on MLB.tv. For now these games have the same set of commercials as very other mlb.tv game, meaning you may see the same thing over 10 times per game and there is 30 seconds of dead air before the Fox broadcast comes back. Successfully monetizing these advertising slots may be our best remaining hope of getting rid of sports blackouts completely.
Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports