For once, I sympathize with Rob Manfred.
In a profile written by ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr last month, the MLB Commissioner said that eliminating blackouts were a “top priority” for him. While many rejoiced at the news, others wonder why it hadn’t happened yet, as if Manfred could just snap his fingers and end all blackouts with zero consequences (I’m sure MLB’s local TV partners would love that).
Prior to Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Manfred spoke to Bill Shaikin of the LA Times about a variety of issues, including blackouts.
While Manfred didn’t go deep into details, he said the league office was spending the most time on eliminating blackouts out of any project on the docket, and yes, it is as complicated as it seems.
Q: Let’s say I am a fan who can’t get to the ballpark, and I want to do one thing: I want to watch whatever game I want, wherever I live and I don’t want to get a headache trying to figure out which channel or streaming service has the game I want to watch on any given night. I will happily pay you for this. Can you explain to me how soon I might be able to do that, and what has to happen between then and now?
Manfred: You certainly have the right person as commissioner of baseball because, if there is one thing I could wish for, more than anything else, it would be the ability to give our fans that frictionless experience of being able to watch what they want to watch, where they want to watch. There is no project that we are spending more time on in the central office than trying to achieve the goal you just articulated.
Q: So what has to happen?
Manfred: There is a lot of wood to chop. It is going to involve fundamental reordering of the control of rights in the industry. It is going to involve conversations with our partners in the broadcast space, including RSNs (regional sports networks like SportsNet LA and Bally Sports West) and distributors. It is a massive undertaking, which is the bad news.
I think the good news is, there is a realization in the industry that, in order for this business to be all it can be, we need to undertake an effort to get as close to the model you are talking about as possible.
As for a timeframe, think less than a decade (which still won’t please fans, but hey, there are 30 teams, several RSN-operating companies, and oodles of cable, satellite, and streaming carriers to contend with).
Q: Is that a five-year project? A 10-year project?
Manfred: It will not be a 10. It is going to happen sooner than that.
Again…I sympathize with Rob Manfred. What a world.
Anyway, in addition to the number of parties involved making this situation difficult, varying contract lengths between teams and RSNs and the RSNs and their various distributors also play not-insignificant roles. Throw in cord cutting, carriers and RSNs both cutting costs, the growth of streaming, and MLB’s national TV deals, and you’ve got quite a sticky situation to unwind. MLB probably also wants to get this done all at once – imagine telling one fanbase that their team is now blackout-free, while other teams still have to deal with those same blackouts. It probably wouldn’t go over well in those blackout markets!
At least Manfred realizes that this is an issue (though it has been for what, a decade? Longer?) and is talking about it now instead of pretending its an isolated problem. Baby steps, folks.