Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/07/17/mlb_blackout/

Baseball blacks-out online

From first to wurst

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Bootnotes, 17th July 2006 15:02 GMT

Comment You won't find a more un-American business than Major League Baseball's online arm - MLB Advanced Media. There. We said it.

The refined version of capitalism crafted here in the good, old US of A tends to demand that you release a product at a given price and then make that product better and cheaper over time. This formula doesn't hold in all cases, but it holds in most, and it should damn sure hold when we're talking about an online service related to the national pastime.

But here we are paying $14.95 a month to watch baseball games online and are receiving a service that has degraded faster than Barry Bonds' home run swing.

Baseball took the lead among all major US sports by offering up an online package starting in 2002. Back then, you paid $4.95 per month for audio of every single game - both live and archived. In 2003, MLB Advanced Media started selling MLB.TV for $14.95 a month. That price allowed you to watch all the live games (full screen in Real or Windows media) you wanted out of your market and to grab audio feeds as well - a huge plus when your game happened to be blacked out.

Blacked out?

For those of you unfamiliar with the archaic rules surrounding baseball broadcasts, here's a brief recap framed in the context of the online debate.

When you fire up the MLB video player, it checks the zip code linked to your credit card and your IP address. The video player wants to make sure you're not trying to watch a game online that is being broadcast in your region. So, if you live in San Francisco, you're not meant to watch the San Francisco Giants online. You're meant to watch the game on TV or go to the stadium. The teams, advertisers, TV networks and others want to protect their hometown revenue. This leaves MLB.com as an option for those living in San Francisco who are more interested in say the Houston Astros or St Louis Cardinals than in the Giants.

But under baseball's rules, Astros fans living in San Francisco can still be screwed. You're blacked out, for example, if the Giants travel to Houston for a game. You also can't watch Astros games online when they're being broadcast nationally by ESPN or Fox. The national blackouts are pretty hilarious. This weekend, for example, we couldn't watch the Astros versus Marlins game on Saturday because it was part of Fox's Saturday baseball package. Of course, Fox wasn't even showing the Astros versus Marlins here in Silicon Valley. It was showing the Giants versus the Phillies. Besides that, we don't get Fox on our janky TV.

This situation becomes even worse if you live in a state such as Iowa that borders numerous team regions. We've seen complaints from subscribers who are considered to be in the home market of six different teams. On any given day, you have to double that figure to include those teams' opponents for the total blackout figure.

That's where baseball has let us down. Here's where MLB Advanced Media has let us down.

In 2003, your $14.95 bought you full-screen, streaming video of all of the non-blacked out games. You also got audio as an option for those games that were blacked out. Pricey? Sure, but all of the internet subscription services are pricey right now. It's just remarkable that MLB was so on the seamed ball to offer the service.

Today, your $14.95 per month buys you much less. For starters, you get no audio. So, if the game is blacked out, you're expected to miss it or to shell out for an additional audio subscription, which costs $14.95 for the whole season. Those of you who prefer not to use Windows Media or are on a Mac where Windows Media doesn't work so well are even worse off. MLB Advanced Media cut its ties to Real Networks this year. Now TV subscribers can't get full-screen video without Windows Media and can't get full-screen at all on Macs. In fact, the service is so awful on Macs as to be almost unusable.

The Windows Media problem applies to few, but the blackout problem applies to many. When not writing Father's Day puff pieces or player hagiographies, Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan has done a nice job of covering the blackout debacle here. Passan promised to ask commissioner Bud Selig about the issue during the All-Star game, and he actually managed to get an answer from Bud the Dud. Now Passan can go back to exploring Carlos Beltran's interest in toy cars.

MLB Advanced Media once had plans for a $2bn to $3bn IPO but recently gave up on that idea. The scaled back agenda seems like a good call given the problems surrounding the company's major service.

Beyond the video issues, MLB.com's website also proves tough to use as it makes processing power and memory disappear. The fan on our computer flips on the moment we hit mlb.com and turns off the moment we close the window. In addition, we notice that the streaming video broadcasts continue to show regular TV commercials during a number of games - and we're sure the actor's union is keeping a close eye on that.

MLB Advanced Media had every chance to set the example as to how all leagues should distribute their games online. And, in fact, the company took a number of positive steps toward that goal.

Over the past two years, however, the MLB.com service has become an awkward embarrassment. Our yearly subscription will be coming to an end in October after the Astros win the World Series.

It's unacceptable for a company with the national pastime in its hands to do such a poor job of managing the baseball franchise online. American business is based on doing things better, faster and cheaper. Consumers tend to abhor paying the same price for fewer options and worse service.

Here's hoping that MLB Advanced Media and the commissioner's office can get their acts together. They are, after all, dealing with some of baseball's most loyal fans - those willing to pay a high monthly fee to watch only baseball. Hardly the bunch you want to lose because of some silly policies and incompetence. ®