To understand the MLB blackout policy for televised games, picture each game in the regular season and playoffs as one unit on a massive roulette board. There are 2,430 spots on the board, which represents the total number of regular season games for all 30 MLB teams, plus the postseason, and the table is surrounded with some of the most powerful media companies in the world, who have all the chips.
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When media giants place chips on a game, or a team’s entire season, they have the rights to broadcast those games. For smaller bets, they may share some games with another media outlet, but when they place a big bet, they get exclusive rights to televise that game, and the rights come off the board for all the other players.
2023 MLB Season Could See Fewer Blackouts
Due to the impending bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group, the parent company of Bally Sports regional sports networks, 14 MLB teams could lose their blackout restrictions in 2023. Diamond Sports has missed interest payments on the billions in debt it used to acquire the Bally Sports RSNs from 21st Century Fox in 2019. The company doesn’t have the money to pay the 14 MLB teams it has deals with the millions they’re owed in local fees, which MLB has made clear will trigger a termination of the contract. Once the regional TV deals are terminated, there is no regional contract to protect, so there will be no blackouts for MLB teams that play on Bally Sports channels. Instead, the games will shift to MLB Network and MLB.TV.
3 causes of MLB blackouts in 2023
#1. MLB blackouts based on regional TV contracts
By contract, there are two types of exclusive broadcast rights when it comes to MLB games. Most regular season games fall under a “regional exclusivity” arrangement where the rights to show a game are shared between a regional sports network (“RSNs”) and an out-of-market broadcast partner like ESPN+, or MLB.TV. In these cases, the out-of-market partner is blacked out in the local market where the RSN operates.
For example, the Marquee Sports Network has negotiated the rights to broadcast all the Cubs regular season games to fans in Chicago and some surrounding markets. When the Cubs are on Marquee in Chicago, the game is blacked out locally on ESPN+ and MLB.TV in order to enforce the contract between the Cubs and Marquee. If you live out-of-market, for example in New York City, the Cubs game will be on ESPN+ and MLB.TV, because Marquee only broadcasts regionally in Chicago. An RSN like Marquee Sports, or YES Network for the Yankees, will not be affected by a Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy, which means MLB Network and MLB.TV would still be blacked out in Chicago and NYC when the Cubs, White Sox, Mets, or Yankees are playing.
#2. MLB blackouts based on exclusive national TV contracts
Marquee MLB games, like ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, air only on ESPN, which causes blackouts on the regional sports networks of the teams featured in the game.
#3. MLB blackouts based on streaming exclusive games
Things also work in reverse when it comes to MLB blackouts, with the local RSN losing on its team’s games. Called the “national exclusive blackout” this is a type of blackout that is likely to increase in the seasons to come as streaming gains in popularity. Seeing the popularity of live TV streaming for sporting events, giants like Apple are moving into the baseball world by buying the exclusive rights to a series of games each season. Starting this season, Apple will broadcast an exclusive doubleheader every Friday night during the regular season on Apple TV+. Apple has the money not to share the game under the usual regional exclusivity model. Instead, viewers who want to watch the games, called Friday Night Baseball, will have to subscribe to Apple TV+. To use our Cubs example, if the Cubs appear on Apple TV’s Friday Night Baseball, the game will be blacked out on the Marquee Sports Network, even for fans in the Chicagoland region.
Streaming deals will be the main cause of future MLB blackouts
Let’s go back to our roulette table analogy. There are more and more players standing around the MLB TV table, and they have full stack of chips to place big bets. The Apple TV+, Friday Night Baseball games are a problem for baseball fans because they muddy the water with another gatekeeper streaming subscription. If you want to watch the games on Friday nights, there is no other way than to sign up for Apple TV+, a platform not associated with, or active in, the sports world at all.
Peacock, the streaming wing of NBC Universal, has a TV deal in place that gives the platform exclusive rights to 18 Sunday MLB games each year. Like the Apple TV+ games, the Peacock MLB games are exclusives, so when your local team appears in one of these games, your local RSN is blacked out.
In addition to Apple TV+ and Peacock, ESPN, owned by Disney, already carries an exclusive Sunday Night Baseball game, and TBS, starting this season, will air a primetime MLB game on Tuesday nights, plus a number of playoff games.
FOX’s Saturday Baseball, and its contractual rights to broadcast the World Series, while it also creates blackouts, is less troublesome because it is easy for most sports fans to access their local FOX affiliate.
The more fragmented the national coverage of MLB becomes, the more frustrating it will be to watch baseball.