Ed. note: Scroll to the bottom for newest updates.
As you may have heard, a federal lawsuit filed against Major League Baseball by fans upset with the league’s blackout rules has been settled just as the trial was about to start. Originally filed back in 2012, the class-action suit claimed MLB was violating antitrust regulations by keeping fans from being able to watch their favorite team’s games, particularly where the online streaming through MLB.TV was involved.
It had been reported a while back that MLB would be moving to more of an unbundled product, similar to what other professional sports leagues offer, but there had been no mention of pricing and other specifics. The newest reports make things look really, really good for baseball fans. Well, sort of…
Terms of the MLB settlement in the Garber case are out. And they look pretty good at first glance. pic.twitter.com/tkxfUP81bG
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 19, 2016
In case the print is too small or Twitter is blocked on the work computer you’re using to access this, here’s what Passan’s tweet says:
Under the agreement, MLB will offer an unbundled MLB.TV Internet package for the next five years, allowing for the purchase of single-team packages for $84.99 next season. “This will be the least expensive full-season package offering among all major professional sports leagues in the United States,” said Jeffrey Dubner of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, which is also representing the class. It represents a 23% reduction from the cheapest version of MLB.TV previously available and a 35% reduction from the most commonly purchased version.
The agreement also requires the MLB.TV league-wide package cost to fall to $109.99.
In addition to the single-team package offering and lower prices, the agreement provides new options to consumers. It requires MLB to implement by the All-Star Break, a “Follow Your Team” variant of MLB.TV, which — for the first time in any major professional sports league — will allow consumers to watch a chosen away team’s telecast even when that club is playing an “in-market” team. This new product, which will cost only $10 more than the MLB.TV package [all emphasis mine], will enable authenticated subscribers — individuals who are pay television subscribers of the Regional Sports Network (RSN) that carries the in-market club — to watch what, up until now, would have been “blacked out” telecasts.
Before I go further, an excerpt from an email I sent to MLB.TV that is featured in the earlier linked piece on the blackout rules:
I understand the intent of the rules, though I’m sure you must know as well as I do that they’re not actually effective at increasing attendance. If anything, they actually impede the consumption of MLB’s product, given that those folks in the blackout zone can neither attend in person nor view via your subscription service. I am aware, however, that the FCC struck down the NFL’s blackout rules and I wanted to see whether the same is true for MLB and your .tv service.
Furthermore, I would like to encourage you to offer configurable single-team or a la carte options for those viewers who might not want to buy the full package. For instance, maybe there’s a way for me to purchase a Cubs-only plan. Or perhaps you could organize a non-national plan that would allow someone to subscribe at a discounted rate for those games that will only be carried on local television.
This is really great news for Cubs fans outside the Chicago market who want to be able to follow their team without purchasing the full package. I think that’s the case, anyway. I would assume that the single-team packages are available to those subscribers who want to buy them for a team not in their market. My understanding is that people in, say, Arizona could buy the Cubs or people in Florida could by the Yankees (more on this idea below).
What I’m not entirely clear on, however, is how this will affect those Cubs fans outside of the greater Chicago area but within the blackout zone (see below).
Ed. note: much of the following has since been refuted by the updates. Well, I think. We’re still operating under an understanding of the settlement doc (below) and have yet to get a full explanation from MLB. It should also be noted that the matter of watching Cubs games is further complicated by the nature of their broadcast schedule. I’m efforting experts for more info as we speak.
You see, there still appears to be a pretty large doughnut hole in the rules that could impact fans in places like the Quad Cities, Ft. Wayne, Indianapolis, Champaign, etc. That’s because those folks may not have access to CSN Chicago and/or the other networks that comprise the Cubs’ hodge-podge broadcast agreements. It’s possible, even likely, that MLB will default to the primary RSN — which would be CSNC in the Cubs’ case — for the purposes of authentication, but even that has pitfalls.
While CSN Chicago is available in most or all of the affected non-Chicago markets listed above, that doesn’t mean that it’s carried by every provider in said markets. So while your neighbor across town might have it through U-Verse, your Xfinity service might not. If you don’t get the RSN, you can’t authenticate. And I know that large portions of Iowa, which is considered “in-market” for the Cubs, don’t have access to the requisite RSN at all.
Furthermore, I’m sure a lot of people who do get CSN Chicago still aren’t going to be willing or able to throw another $100¹ on top of an already steep cable bill. And then you’ve got the increasing number of folks who are cutting the cord from traditional cable or satellite TV in favor of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, etc. They would all be locked out of the new option because they’d be unable to authenticate as paid subscribers to the RSN. While the authentication requirement only applies to those folks residing in areas considered “in-market” for the Cubs, that market is a pretty broad one.
There’s another, smaller issue that could impact some out-of-market Cubs fans who are in-market for another team or teams. It’s possible that someone who lives in Pittsburgh and who purchases the Cubs-only package would be unable to watch them when they’re playing the Pirates at PNC. Of course, that person could watch locally. But say it’s someone who, like those Cubs fans in Iowa, is in-market for another team but unable to authenticate through their own RSN? Pretty small demographic, but still interesting.
While there’s still a long race yet to run, this is a big step in the right direction. It’s nice to see baseball being an innovator in this area, even if it had to come as the result of a lawsuit. Again, this is all very fresh and it may take time to unpack everything. As such, stay tuned for more.
¹While a C-note might not seem like a lot to put up, consider the value of that money relative to what it’s actually buying. Since you need access to the RSN in order to get the “Follow Your Team” package in the first place, you wouldn’t need it for any games being carried on said RSN. So if you’re a Cubs fan, you’d really only be paying for away games not being offered on CSN Chicago. I’m not going to check the broadcast schedule, but I can’t imagine that includes a huge sum of games.
As I’ve said in the past, I think you’re better off purchasing MLB Audio for $15 or $20 in those situations. You can have the live radio feed of the game with zero restrictions and you’re saving money to boot. The more I look at it, the more it seems this settlement is really just a clever ploy to appease the plaintiffs while not really doing much to diminish the efficacy of the current blackout rules.
Eric Fisher of the Sports Business Journal joined the Spiegel & Goff Show on 670 The Score to discuss the new MLB.TV changes, and the information he provided contrasts a bit with what I was led to believe. According to Fisher, one need only subscribe to any RSN in order to get access to the single-team and “Follow Your Team” features. I’m still a bit confused as to how this will all work, particularly in terms of the FYT feature.
As you’ll see above, the settlement “will enable authenticated subscribers — individuals who are pay television subscribers of the Regional Sports Network (RSN) that carries the in-market club — to watch what, up until now, would have been “blacked out” telecasts.” I believe I may have incorrectly translated this above, and now am seeing this as something that gives a viewer in AZ the ability to get the Cubs broadcast even when the Cubs are playing the D-backs.
But back to the big revelation from Fisher’s appearance, which is that a potential subscriber doesn’t have to have access to CSN Chicago in order to get the Cubs’ single-team package. As long as you have access to your local RSN, you’ll be able to authenticate and choose the single-team option. Big if true. It also means I was way off in the above diatribe. I have reached out to Mr. Fisher for more information and will present that if and when it becomes available.
Full proposed settlement agreement:
Also in Garber settlement: a price break on Extra Innings for DirecTV/Comcast subs & efforts to help fans who can't get cable/sat service
— Eric Fisher (@AEricFisher) January 20, 2016
From Bleacher Nation’s bullets on the topic:
MLB will now have to make MLB.tv available, without blackouts, to “unserved fans” – i.e., fans who live in a blackout region but who *genuinely cannot* purchase “local” games on their cable/satellite system. In other words, if you live in the Cubs’ large blackout region, but the cable/satellite operators in your area will not carry CSN Chicago, you can now get those games on MLB.tv (you have to go through an application process to tell MLB that you can’t otherwise get the games). If you can get CSN Chicago, though, you’re gonna still be blacked out, because the full blackout regions appear to be unchanged by this settlement. The full details are in the settlement document, but I’m expecting MLB.tv will have an official, more-user-friendly description as the season approaches.
If you’re a current MLB.TV subscriber, you may be set up on an auto-renewal, which means that you’d be getting the same service next season. If you’re interested in going with the cheaper single-team version, you may want to make sure you’re not set up to be charged for the full price here in the near future. At this point, the only option shown on the site is the Spring Training package (available now for $24.99; purchasing through that link actually helps Cubs Insider too).
As details emerge relative to the single-team subscriptions, I’ll be sure to provide links that will allow you to subscribe and earn CI a small commission at the same time. When you think about it, spending money to help me out is really the least you could do. So when this is all cleared up, I expect to see all manner of subscriptions rolling in and accumulating tens of dollars for me.