The Game Nobody Can See: The Future of Baseball Is Streaming
For years, we’ve been hearing about the constant initiative to make baseball more accessible to a new generation of fans. From extra inning “ghost runners” to pitch clocks to the possibility of robot umpires, Major League Baseball has demonstrated a commitment to creativity and innovation to make the game as entertaining as possible. Assuming, that is, that you can actually watch your team play.
I am a baseball transplant living in enemy territory. For the past seven years, I have lived in Cincinnati, a division rivalry city for my hometown Chicago Cubs. Being a stranger in a strange land suits me well; I get a twisted kind of joy wearing all blue to Great American Ballpark, whether or not the Cubs are in town. It helps, of course, that in my time in the city, the Cubs have finished ahead of the Reds in the standings all but once, including a World Series championship. There would seem to be no end to my gloating.
In all fairness, the Reds are not my greatest enemy in the baseball world. I save that vitriol for St. Louis and Milwaukee. No, for the most part, being a Cubs fan who quietly supports the Cincinnati team has worked out quite nicely. I have Reds season tickets, and root for the home team 70 games a year. I want the Reds to be good enough to be interesting, because the city is more fun that way (not that I would have any reason to know that). But this week, I was reminded why I will probably never be able to be a true Reds fan. Because when the Reds went to Wrigley Field to play the Cubs, I should have been the most engaged fan in the world following two sub-par teams. But instead, I couldn’t watch the series at all.
You see, I am a Millennial, which means I don’t have local cable. I subscribe to half a dozen streaming sites and, most importantly, have the premium MLB.TV subscription package. I can watch 28 teams play every night on my TV, on my phone, anywhere I want. But I can’t watch games in which the local team plays because of blackout restrictions.
Blackout restrictions are an homage to a bygone era. There are two reasons for blackouts. The first is a desire to drive fans to see games in person. Cincinnati is no stranger to this rule. In 2014, so few fans wanted to watch the Bengals play a playoff game outside in January that there was the threat that their game wouldn’t be broadcast on television unless the stadium was sold out. (It eventually was) The second aspect is that regional broadcasters want exclusive rights to publicize the games, making it so that fans need cable subscriptions in order to watch their teams.
The game is obviously a business. I am not naive enough to expect that baseball will work counter to its financial interests and give games away for free. But the long-standing relationship between the game and the cable companies does not, in fact, serve the ultimate goal of creating lifelong baseball fans. A Reds fan should be able to go to the MLB and pay money to see the games at home, something they are currently unable to do.
Baseball is not for the faint of heart. To be a fan is to follow a team through the grind of a long schedule, to build your life around the daily ups and downs of a season. I would know; as a rabid Cubs fan, I often watch at least part of almost every game. I have been known to craft my whole day around being able to check in on the Cubs, something I am only able to do because I don’t live in Chicago. If baseball wants to create a new generation of fans that are as enthusiastic about the sport as decades of us have been before, they need to make it as easy as possible to gain access to the game. Cable is a dying industry, quickly being replaced by far more intriguing and exciting ways to connect to our favorite media. Baseball should cut that chord, literally and figuratively, and join the new age of how fans experience sports.