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Here’s why you are blacked out from watching your favorite MLB team

Blackout policies are often misunderstood. Here’s what you need to know and how you can watch your team, The St. Louis Baseball Cardinals.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals

The blackout policy associated with watching Major League Baseball games is a source of constant frustration for fans. I know - I’m a fan in Iowa, which is blacked out from watching SIX teams. But while the frustration persists, the confusion is something we can fix.

It’s not only fans who misunderstand what the blackout rules are. Here’s Maury Brown in Forbes, just this year, completely misunderstanding what the blackout policies are and how they work. We can’t make blackouts go away but we can at least clear up the misunderstandings and help you understand what your options are for watching Cardinals Baseball.

Blackout Rules have nothing to do with going to the ballpark

This is probably the most pervasive, incorrect idea out there. Brown even suggests this in his Forbes piece:

Unlike other sports that use blackouts to drive fans to games, in many cases across the country, territories can be so far afield as to make blackouts as a means to get fans to games, ridiculous.

It’s true that the NFL blackout policy can cause a game to be blacked out locally in the event of low ticket sales, but this is simply not how baseball blackouts work. Baseball blackouts are based on regional television broadcasting rights.

Blackout Policies are set by Regional Sports Networks, not Major League Baseball

This is the 2nd most pervasive misconception, often manifest in the idea that Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball could simply wave a magic wand and make blackouts go away. Again, even Brown suggests this:

If Manfred is sincere in his comments about baseball being a part of the healing process, the league should lift its arcane blackout policy for 2020.

It’s important to understand that in MLB, teams act much more as independent businesses than they do in most other sports. So while The League signs national broadcast deals for playoff games, as well as a few weekly games on ESPN, MLB Network, etc., teams are left on their own to negotiate broadcast rights for the bulk of their regular season games.

20+ years ago, teams would often sign a deal with a local, over-the-air broadcaster for those games. As a fan, this meant that those games were available to watch free.

Then teams began signing deals with cable stations, and eventually dedicated “regional sports networks.” These RSNs would pay the team SUBSTANTIALLY more money for the right to broadcast the games. They earn not only the ad revenue during game broadcasts, but a percentage of every single cable subscription in their broadcast area (assuming they are on the basic tier).

The RSN therefore benefits by drawing itself as large an area as possible, even overlapping with other teams. That’s how you get situations like we have here in Iowa - a state with no MLB Team - but the teams from every surrounding state drawing us into their broadcast area.

This historically put pressure on each cable and satellite provider to select which of the six MLB teams would be considered “the local team,” and therefore included in the basic service tier. Here in Des Moines, our local cable provider long featured the Chicago teams in the basic tier. Several years ago, they switched to Fox Sports Midwest and Cubs fans lost their mind. It was a beautiful time.

Anyway, I’m getting into my next main point, which is...

There is not one blackout policy. There are 30.

Those contracts teams sign with RSNs, and the blackout areas associated with them, are negotiated independently. This is the biggest reason why - even if hypothetically MLB retained the right to impose a unilateral blackout policy - doing so would trigger the renegotiation and litigation of 30 separate billion-dollar-contracts. It simply is not going to happen.

There’s a great table in Craig Edwards’ recent Fangraphs post that shows the total value and duration of each MLB team’s TV deal. All of the more recent TV deals are in the billions of dollars. While some of them end soon, others extend as far as 2040. The Cardinals own $1 billion deal with Fox Sports Midwest extends to 2032.

Is there any reason to hope this will change?

The short answer is no. Even if MLB prioritized an effort to streamline or eliminate blackouts, or to make all games available via MLB TV, it’s hard to imagine they could negotiate 30 separate deals that would change the terms of previously agreed, multi-billion-dollar contracts.

That said, MLB was part of a bid for the recently sold Fox RSNs, and Rob Manfred confirmed that bid was part of a long-term effort to eventually centralize MLB’s broadcast rights into something more like what the NFL has. (MLB did not win that bid anyway.)

In addition to allowing MLB to offer a more fan-friendly, blackout free TV product, such a broadcast deal would also help balance the revenue disparity among teams, which is now caused at least as much by the gap in local TV deals as it is in other local revenue, like ticket sales. While the lower revenue teams would love this, the Yankees and Dodgers would absolutely not. So good luck making that happen, Commish.

In fact, the big teams in particular are moving in the opposite direction by owning (in whole or in part) their own RSNs. The Cardinals have a 30% stake in Fox Sports Midwest. This essentially allows teams to “hide” revenue by negotiating a lower fee for broadcast rights. To an extent, they are selling the team’s local broadcasting rights to themselves, so they have tremendous leeway in how they crunch those numbers. And because only the documented broadcast rights fee will be counted towards revenue sharing, they have an incentive to keep that number low.

Still, this is a volatile situation and most indications are that the RSN bubble is collapsing. Local sports were once a highly coveted component of cable TV packages, allowing RSNs to demand a big chunk of monthly subscriptions. But with the cable cabal disrupted by not only satellite providers, but multiple streaming providers (Hulu, Sling, YouTube, etc.), all providers are battling to lower costs and in some cases, even walking away from RSN deals altogether.

That volatility suggests things could change, but how they would change seems unclear. And it is my general rule to expect changes to benefit the large corporate interests rather than the consumer.

So how can I watch Cardinals games?

The current situation is terrible and unlikely to change, but even so, you probably have multiple options available to watch blacked out Cardinals games.

If you are in a blackout area, it is almost always true that a provider in your area - a cable or satellite company - carries Cardinals games. If you pony up the cash for whatever tier the games are on, you can watch.

Even if Fox Sports Midwest is not carried at a lower or basic level - perhaps another MLB team’s RSN is - you can still generally get access to all the RSNs you are blacked out from by purchasing a premium “Sports Tier.” For years, this is what I did here in Iowa. The Chicago RSNs were available at the basic tier, but by paying extra for that sports package, I also got access to the RSNs from all the other MLB teams which were blacked out here.

The system works mostly the same if you go with one of the newer streaming providers, such as Sling, Hulu or YouTube. They may include one RSN at a basic tier, but if that’s not FSMW, you may need to pay up for an additional sports tier.

That said, whereas even just a couple years ago your RSN would be available on most any cable, satellite or streaming service, that is no longer the case. Fox Sports Midwest is no longer carried by Dish, Sling or YouTube TV (in most areas). Your options are likely limited to your local cable company, DirecTV, Hulu Plus Live TV and AT&T TV. And those could change at any point, even mid-season.

Option #1 is to go with one of those providers and pay whatever they charge for the tier where FSMW is located. It may cost more than you want to spend, and given the limitations of your home or local area, not all of these options may be available to you specifically.

Option #2 is to purchase MLB TV and use a VPN or some other method to make your location appear to be outside the blackout area. Here, we are dabbling into the dark arts. You’re not breaking the law, but you are violating the terms of service, or at least on some level, lying. This also involves a bit more tech wizardry than some users are comfortable with.

The bottom line is this: MLB blackouts are extremely frustrating from a fan perspective, and due to the financial structure behind them, unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. That said, while it may not be for the price you want or in a way you are technically comfortable with, there is almost certainly a way for you to watch your local team, even in a blackout area.