As season looms, Orioles fans balk over streaming blackout

Baseball season is approaching, but ardent Orioles fan Julie Saxenmeyer won't be paying to watch major-league games on her phone because the package is missing an essential ingredient: her favorite team.

"I don't pay for the package because I don't get to see the O's," she said.


As sports have become increasingly accessible on smart devices, the Cockeysville resident and other Baltimore fans wonder why a $112.99 MLB.TV subscription allows them to stream Orioles' games only when they are outside the team's Baltimore-Washington television market, which stretches from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

The Orioles, however, increasingly are an exception rather than the rule when it comes to streaming. By the time the season opens on April 2, fans of just three of the 30 teams — the Orioles, the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — will remain subject to the in-market streaming restrictions.


Other teams have embraced or at least accepted live-streaming their games locally as an important tool for generating increased interest to secure baseball's future. More consumers, especially younger ones, now stream their entertainment, including sports, on their phones or other devices than watch it on television, according to the Consumer Technology Association.

"Naturally if you gave fans the choice, they would want the best of both worlds," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif.

To many fans like Saxenmeyer, paying for baseball games without the Orioles would be like buying a hot dog with only the bun.

"It's great that O's fans in Chicago and Miami can stream the games, but I should be able to do that in my living room in Cockeysville, too," Saxenmeyer said.

The reasons for the blackouts can seem as complicated as the infield fly rule. The bottom line is that they are about economics, not technology, as some teams and their local television networks worry about diluting the value of their lucrative broadcast deals.

The Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network pays the Orioles and Nationals tens of millions a year for the rights to show their games on television. Such fees provide teams critical revenue to compete for players in the open market.

So major-league teams, networks and distributors have been wary of in-market streaming. They worried that streaming local games could diminish the value of existing broadcast deals as fans abandoned cable in favor of MLB.TV streaming service.

That could, in effect, create situations in which baseball was competing against itself at the expense of the teams and regional networks.


Teams also expressed concern that local advertisers might be alienated if streaming catered more to national advertisers and sponsors.

Streaming broadcasts viewed by out-of-market fans won't include local ads. For example, a Philadelphia Phillies game viewed by a fan in California won't contain an ad for a Philadelphia restaurant. But fans in the Philadelphia market will get the same local ads in the streaming broadcast as those watching at home on cable.

Major League Baseball has been trying for years to address such concerns by finding economic models palatable for the league, its teams and their broadcast partners and distributors.

In January, NBC Sports Regional Networks announced an agreement to stream in-market games for subscribers of its CSN regional networks showing the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants. Terms were not disclosed.

Under the arrangement, viewers need to be subscribers of a cable company or dish package on which the games are carried. That was also a requirement of a previous deal on local streaming with Fox Sports.

"I would expect that the others would fall into line," said John Mansell, a sports and media consultant based in Northern Virginia.


But no deal has yet been struck with MASN, which is shared by the Orioles and Nationals. Dodgers' fans are in the same situation.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the goal is for all 30 teams to have their games streamed in their home markets.

"There are ongoing conversations in an effort to make sure fans of all teams will have access to in-market streaming as part of the commisioner's directive," said a spokesperson for MLB Advanced Media, a company created by league officials in 2000 so its streaming and other online activities could be under one roof.

The Orioles and MASN declined comment because the discussions are continuing.

MASN is involved in a long-running, unrelated dispute with Major League Baseball over whether the network must pay tens of millions of dollars a year more to the Nationals in television rights fees. The matter is before a New York appeals court.

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The current streaming package appears to work fine for Baltimoreans who have moved away but retain their baseball loyalties.


"During the week I watch most of the games," said Avi Miller, a longtime Orioles' season-ticket holder who left Baltimore in 2014 and now does communications work at a Boston-area information technology company. "I used to have a limited data plan. Now I have unlimited, so I've been streaming a lot more with it."

But even in Boston, Miller found some Baltimore games blacked out.

He lives in the market of the Boston Red Sox, who played the Orioles 19 times last year. Just as Orioles games are blacked out in Baltimore, Red Sox games weren't shown in the Boston market on his streaming package. That is expected to change this season.

"Those games [in 2016] had to be watched through NESN," Miller said. "And I don't have cable."