Baseball's 'blackout' restrictions are about to show why streaming television is a whole new ballgam
Major League Baseball’s 2017 postseason games begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3, with the Minnesota Twins facing the New York Yankees to determine who will win the American League Wildcard. Watching the baseball game is easy—if you have cable—because it is being broadcast on ESPN. But if you want to stream the game on your phone, be prepared for complications. MLB’s blackout policy makes it difficult to watch playoff games via streaming, even if you pay for an MLB.tv account.
This year’s playoff games will appear on five television channels—ESPN, Fox Sports 1 (FS1), FOX, MLB Network, and TBS—only one of which (FOX) is a broadcast station. MLB’s postseason schedule shows which television channel each game can be found on.
But this being the digital age, more people than ever are interested in watching the games on mobile devices. If you’re a pay television subscriber, you can likely stream the games using your provider’s streaming app. But if you’re a cord-cutter, MLB.TV, baseball’s paid streaming service, isn’t actually the best bet—the league has simply made it too complex to catch a game via its MLB At Bat app.
Showing a limited selection of playoff games, the subscription package does not provide U.S. viewers with access to the entire postseason, despite its $24.99 price tag. Also, state-side fans looking to stream the games will have to authenticate their MLB.TV accounts through their pay television provider. Put simply: If you want to pay to stream baseball, you also need to pay for cable.
From there, the online service gets even more granular: If MLB actually allows a game to be live streamed, the matchup may only be viewable through a web browser or mobile device, not other connected devices. For example, Tuesday’s Yankees game is not available live via the Internet at all with MLB.TV. But Wednesday’s wildcard “play-in” between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks can be streamed, though only in a web browser or on a mobile device, like an iPhone. It cannot be accessed in the living room via a Roku or Apple TV.
If you want to kick back and stream a game live via MLB.TV on your Internet-connected television, the Thursday, Oct. 5 game between the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros is your first chance. The only other game on the schedule where that feature is currently listed is the next day’s game between the American League wildcard winner and the Cleveland Indians. The rest of the playoffs, it would seem, are standing-room only.
All of this is because of MLB’s blackout policy, which makes it hard to watch MLB playoff games via streaming. The decades old policy was recently challenged in court, but the league settled the lawsuit without having to change its policy.
As convoluted as baseball’s streaming requirements may sound, here’s the most mind-boggling intricacy of all MLB.TV’s policies: The above restrictions and complications only apply to U.S.-based baseball fans. MLB.TV subscribers located outside the U.S. can watch every postseason and World Series game live on more than 400 devices without needing to be authenticated via a pay television account, the league says.
This is all because baseball has expensive television deals, and as a result they have a vested interest in pushing as many viewers through the cable pipeline as possible, even if they’re actually streaming the games.
But thankfully MLB.TV isn’t the only way to watch online. Baseball fans can catch the playoffs using some of the new streaming television services that have become popular over the last year. Sling TV can be an inexpensive way to catch the games on everything from an Amazon Fire tablet to an Xbox One, all without a cable subscription. DirecTV Now offers fewer devices to view games on, but it provides a great set of channels to compliment the channels where the games appear. Hulu Live TV is another fine choice for streaming television, and it comes with a library of great on-demand content too.
Perhaps competition in the streaming market will lead MLB to loosen its reigns on streaming games in the U.S. in the future. Streaming video, after all, is a whole new ballgame.