May 27, 2024

Baseball's Downfall: How MLB Blackout Rules Destroy Viewership

Baseball has been long known as America’s pastime, but soon this may not be the case. Major League Baseball is facing a critical challenge: shrinking viewership. A significant factor contributing to this decline is MLB's controversial blackout policy. First implemented over 50 years ago, blackouts restrict live game broadcasts in specific regions. They were originally meant to protect exclusive media rights for Regional Sports Networks and fill stadiums. But now that streaming is king and many RSNs are battling bankruptcy, it’s clear these regulations are a relic of the past. 

mlb blackout

Impact of MLB Blackouts on Fans

To confront changing times, MLB introduced their first-of-its-kind service, MLB.tv, back in 2002. This was meant to become the gold standard for sports streaming. Flash forward to 2024 and MLB.tv still struggles to gain widespread success largely due to its inability to address blackout regulations. MLB blackouts give RSNs exclusive rights to broadcasting, preventing streams through the platform in teams' home territories. For instance, if you live in Dallas, you can't stream Texas Rangers games. The same applies to residents of Chicago wanting to watch the Cubs or White Sox, and to Houston fans looking to watch the Astros. Essentially, these rules affect every city with an MLB team.

Fans experiencing blackouts who live close to the stadium can attend the games in person, which aligns with MLB's goal of driving ticket, food, and merchandise sales. However, not all blackout areas are within driving distance of the stadiums. For example, a fan in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would face blackouts for Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, and Texas Rangers games. This fan would need to drive 4 hours to Kansas City or Arlington, 6 hours to St. Louis, and nearly 8 hours to Houston to see these teams play live. This setup makes MLB.tv an impractical service for many fans who want to watch their favorite teams, regardless of their proximity to the stadiums.

mlb blackout

Alarming Decline in World Series Viewership

Today’s audiences are used to the accessibility of streaming their favorite sports all season long. As blackouts hinder fans following regular-season play, they also lead to less engagement on baseball’s biggest event: The World Series. This wasn’t always the case– just over 10 years ago, 19M viewers tuned in to watch the Red Sox capture their eighth Series over the St. Louis Cardinals. 10 years later, when the Texas Rangers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, the World Series averaged 9M viewers, becoming the least watched on record. 

This mark continued the trend of declining audiences, with the past four World Series’ ranking as the four least-watched in history. The Rangers-Diamondback matchup was especially alarming as viewership dropped 23%. This can’t be because baseball is “getting boring.” In fact, it’s growing worldwide, with players like Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani leading the way. Postseason games are featured on FOX, ESPN, and ABC, so both cable and streaming subscribers can tune in. It’s the regular season blackouts that make it so difficult for fans to access games.

mlb blackout

Bally Sports Blackout Leaves Fans Without Local MLB Games

While blackouts are still going strong, the RSNs they’re designed to protect are not. Bally Sports, a group of regional networks in the United States, went dark at the beginning of May after Comcast and Bally’s operator, Diamond Sports Group, failed to agree on a new contract. This has left MLB fans across the country unable to watch their local teams.

Diamond Sports Group holds broadcasting rights to 12 MLB teams. 4 of these teams have alternate viewing options, but fans of the other 8 are unable to watch local games unless they are picked up nationally. Will MLB.tv lift blackout restrictions for these eight teams without a RSN? Unfortunately not. MLB cannot lift blackout restrictions due to contract stipulations. As a result, fans of these 8 teams will have to watch on their devices if they choose to stay within legal viewing options.

mlb blackout

Blackouts Impact MLB Sponsorship Value

While blackouts pose pain points for viewers, it’s only a matter of time before sponsors feel it too. Sponsorship value is dependent on audience size, and if MLB viewership continues to decline, sponsors may renegotiate their agreements or pull out entirely. This would be a massive hit to MLB who earned $1.5B in sponsorship deals just last year alone. Longtime sponsors like Anheuser-Busch, Mastercard, and PepsiCo rely on MLB to reach large audiences. Blackouts undermine their partnerships by reducing viewership, which means fewer eyes and less engagement. This could lead to brands shifting their ad spend towards sports and leagues with growing audiences like U.S. soccer and the WNBA.

Ultimately, blackouts are a significant barrier to growing a viewership base in today’s age. MLB needs to serve its fans better and find a way to work around these blackouts, especially for the fans of the 8 teams with no RSN home. The future of baseball depends on MLB’s ability to adapt to the evolving media landscape, and addressing blackout policies is the first step to making that happen. 

Sources:

  1. https://nondoc.com/2023/05/23/its-time-to-fix-the-confounding-mlb-blackout-problem/
  2. https://www.mlb.com/live-stream-games/help-center/blackout-policy
  3. https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/cooper-mlb-blackouts-impact-baseball-fans-ability-to-witness-history/
  4. https://www.mlb.com/live-stream-games/help-center/blackouts-teams
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2013/10/31/game-6-that-sees-red-sox-win-world-series-a-massive-tv-ratings-homerun/?sh=796ad9127c4a
  6. https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/mlb-world-series-2023-tv-ratings-viewership-fox-texas-rangers/#:~:text=TV%20audiences%20dropped%20by%2023,per%20cent%20on%20last%20season
  7. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/40071329/bally-sports-channels-pulled-air-comcast

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