Deal with DirecTV could leave most fans out in cold
Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:42PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 7:41PM
Many fans won't get to watch Ichiro's sweet swing every night if MLB and DirecTV have their way.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
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The last place that any baseball fan ever wants to be is between team owners and a dollar bill. It's like stepping between Pete Rose and Ray Fosse, circa 1970. Or between Jose Canseco and his syringe sometime in the '90s. If it takes bowling over fans to get to that buck -- or giving them a nice, quick shot in the butt to get them out of the way -- that's exactly what baseball owners are going to do. It's not even a contest.
Major League Baseball is in the process of negotiating exclusive rights to its Extra Innings package of out-of-market games to satellite giant DirecTV, and that means a lot of fans are about to get absolutely crushed into the dirt. The Extra Innings package, for the hundreds of thousands of fans who have shelled out the $170 or so for it already know, is a seamhead's dream: almost unlimited baseball broadcast by home-team announcers for six months. Up to 60 regular-season games a week.
Say you're a transplanted Washingtonian living in Miami and you want to see your hometown Mariners every night. You can do it with Extra Innings. Say you just want to spend a few evenings a week poring over six or seven games between teams you'd rarely get to see otherwise. Go for it. You can hear Jerry Remy do the Red Sox on NESN, pop over to take in a little Hawk Harrelson with the White Sox (if you can take him) and finish up with Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow calling a Giants game -- all in one dizzying, bleary-eyed evening. Then you can do it again the next night.
But now, if this deal between MLB and DirecTV goes through as expected, you won't be able to get Extra Innings through your local cable TV outfit. Or through Dish Network, either. If you want the Extra Innings package, starting with the 2007 season, you'll have to be a DirecTV subscriber. No exceptions. That, as I understand the concept, is the whole "exclusive rights" thing.
(DirecTV, we should point out, is becoming the runaway leader of sports programming among satellite providers. The company already has exclusive rights to NFL out-of-market games via its Sunday Ticket package. It just announced exclusive rights to Mega March Madness for the NCAA basketball tournament. DirecTV is becoming the ESPN of the shiny dish set.)
If it so happens that you can't get DirecTV, or you don't want to -- say, you live in an apartment complex that makes it impossible or difficult to use a satellite dish, or you're in another place where a dish can't get a clear shot at a satellite, or you just don't like their looks or the fact that the reception can get a little fuzzy in the worst of weather -- well, you're pretty much out of luck. Move over, pal, you're about to get posterized for posterity. You're going to be stuck with whoever broadcasts your local team, the Fox national game of the week and whatever national games ESPN decides to put on twice a week.
There is another option, of course, which not so coincidentally falls rather nicely into baseball's money-hungry ways. If this deal goes through, and DirecTV isn't an option, you could always go to MLB.TV, Major League Baseball's Internet-based version of Extra Innings. You have to have a broadband hookup, of course, and the computer screen is super wimpy compared to that 42-inch living room screen of yours. The technology isn't flawless, by any means. But it's there, for those who get shut out by the DirecTV deal, at about $100 a season.
It's hard to say exactly how many people this new MLB-DirecTV hookup is going to affect because nobody wants to talk much about something still in the works. According to The Sports Business Journal, Extra Innings pulled in about 750,000 subscribers last year through sales on Dish Network, DirecTV and cable systems throughout the U.S. With two-thirds of that equation potentially gone -- including, we'd have to assume, the largest part, cable TV -- we could have, maybe, as many as a half-million die-hard baseball fans scrambling around. It's not a pretty proposition. Many of those can, and probably will, switch to DirecTV. But many, also, would be left out or left to MLB.TV.
The reason MLB is forsaking that many fans shouldn't surprise anyone. DirecTV, according to a report in the New York Times, will fork over $700 million for seven years for the exclusive rights to carry Extra Innings. So MLB is faced with this simple decision: $700 million or a few thousand upset seamheads. It's no contest. It's Rose against Fosse.
Business-wise, short-term, you can see baseball's side in this, if you forget about the fans. A thirtieth of a $700 million deal will pay a good-sized piece of any team's over-inflated payroll. And a lot of the money that baseball sees from the DirecTV deal could go toward seeding the game's next big money-making venture, the MLB Channel, coming to a television near you around the 2009 season.
But the shame -- and isn't this always the problem? -- is that it's the fans who ultimately end up taking it in the Canseco once again. The deal with DirecTV will make it more difficult for many baseball fans to get what they want, how they want. It's really as simple as that. And that's no way to treat the customer.