MLB's TV Deals Up For Bids: A Great Time To End Blackouts

tv snow

With MLB's national television contracts open for bids, perhaps baseball's moguls can also address the blackout issue.

Major League Baseball's television-rights deals with ESPN, Fox and TBS expire soon. Those channels had exclusive negotiating windows to extend their contracts, but, according to Eric Fisher at Sports Business Journal, those windows have now expired and so MLB is putting up the rights on the open market.

You'll notice that article is behind a paywall. The gist is that the three current networks are all interested in continuing their deals, but there's at least one other national network looking to get in. The writer, Eric Fisher, has graciously given me permission to quote from his article. Here's one key point:

The final window, with ESPN, ends in the middle of this week, sources said, allowing MLB to start negotiations with other networks, like NBC Universal, which has made no secret of its desire to pick up a package of rights for its NBC Sports Network cable channel. NBC has not held MLB rights since 2000 and is eager to bid on them this summer, sources said.

"We think it’s a great property, and given the opportunity, we’d welcome the discussion," said Greg Hughes, NBC Sports Group senior vice president of communications.

Fisher further quotes NBC sources as saying they already have a partnership with six MLB teams who televise their games through their owned regional sports networks. He writes that Fox could turn its Speed auto-racing channel into a general sports network that could carry some baseball games, and that both ESPN and TBS are interested in at least maintaining, if not expanding, their current packages, including possibly more postseason games. But to me, here's the most important part of any future MLB television negotiations:

Also at issue is what, if any, digital rights will ultimately be included in the package. MLB traditionally has negotiated digital rights separately from its TV rights, and since its current national TV deals were struck in 2006, MLB Advanced Media has grown into an industry juggernaut. But all of the TV networks have stated their desire to have every new deal with a major sports property include a passel of digital rights.

Digital rights. You know, the right to be blacked out of various games if you want to watch on your mobile devices or your computer. Last August, I went to Las Vegas for a SB Nation conference. I arrived late in the evening and fired up my phone to get some scores. The only game still going that late was an Astros/Dodgers tilt. I figured I'd watch it in the taxi on my way to my hotel.

Denied! I was in the Dodgers' territory. No watching for you, you interloper, because you're 267 miles from Dodger Stadium! Why, I could have been there in a little over four hours!

These negotiations are primarily about national TV rights. But with almost anything on the table, it's time for MLB, MLB Advanced Media and baseball's owners to get out of the 1970s, when a team territorial map like this one might have made sense, and allow anyone willing to pay for a MLB television package to watch any game, any time, anywhere, on any device he or she owns. Baseball is the only sport that spends an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to prevent its fans from watching its product.

Wake up, Bud. It's 2012, not 1972.

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