DUNEDIN, Fla. — The possible bankruptcy of Bally Sports’ regional networks could help accelerate Major League Baseball’s attempt to move away from game blackouts.
In recent years, Commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken about MLB’s desire to create a streaming service that goes beyond MLB.tv. Currently, MLB.tv only gives people the ability to watch out-of-market games. So if you’re in New York, you can’t see the Mets and Yankees, and other states, like Iowa, have particularly onerous blackout restrictions.
Manfred made it clear Thursday at his annual Grapefruit League press conference that ideally fans could get any game they want at any time, for all 30 teams.
“I hope we get to the point where on the digital side, when you go to MLB.tv, you can buy whatever you want,” Manfred said. “You can buy the package outside the market. You can buy the local games, you can buy two sets of local games, whatever you want. I mean, that is, to me, the definition of what will be a valuable digital offering in the future.”
Such an offer could begin for at least some teams sooner rather than later, potentially as early as the 2023 season. Diamond Sports, which operates Bally Sports’ RSNs, appears headed for bankruptcy. If that happens, MLB teams carried by Bally’s networks could be distributed through the service.
“We have taken those preparation efforts very seriously,” Manfred said. “We know that we can produce games in case Bally is not broadcasting. We know we can put those games together with MLB.tv digitally. And we’re in the process of trying to reach agreements that will put us in a position to make those games available within the cable package as well.
“From a fan perspective, while it may not be the channel that is your traditional RSN, if you think about it from a reach perspective, games that are digitally available in the marketplace is something that fans have been clamoring for. during years. I don’t enjoy any of this. I think it’s necessary to have a centralized solution to what is a really serious problem and move to the next stage of delivering games to fans, delivering them where they want to watch them and without the kind of outages that we’ve had. I had on the old model.”
Manfred said concern over blackouts has become “more acute in recent years.”
“The blackout issue has been a concern for several years. Some of that, maybe a lot, was built into the structure of the RSN models, when you have an exclusivity that belongs to an RSN. If they don’t get distribution in a particular area, obviously there are no games available,” Manfred said. “I think our aggressiveness about stepping in, in the event that Bally can’t broadcast, was driven in part by the fact that we saw it as an opportunity to fix this blackout issue.”
If MLB expands to 32 franchises, division realignment likely to follow
Manfred has said that if MLB is ever going to have expansion franchises, it will only happen after the A’s and Rays resolve their stadium situations. But at that point, if MLB were to go to 32 teams, realignment would be a likely accompaniment.
Rob Manfred: “For realignment to be seriously talked about, it needs to be done in the context of the expansion. You almost have to talk about any realignment in the context of the expansion…if you were going to 32, you would at least have to talk about to be geographical”
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) February 16, 2023
“Realistically, for realignment to be seriously talked about, it would be done in the context of expansion,” Manfred said. “You almost have to talk about some realignment in the context of the expansion. Because… with 32, you go to eight (groups of) fours as far as the divisions. And I think in the context of doing that, there’s an opportunity to address another fan issue that has some significance.
“In our postseason, we often have, you know, Boston-Anaheim in the first round, where we have four windows. If you think about it, you have four windows, you have Boston and Anaheim; almost, by definition, you have to do poorly for a fanbase, right? It is too early in one place or too late in another. Particularly if you get to East-West matchups. If you got to 32, you would at least have to talk about geographic location to play in the playoffs from the east side and from the west side.”
The automatic ball hitting system in Triple A
All Triple-A games in 2023 will be played with one of two forms of the automated ball hitting system, or ABS: 1) a challenge system, where a team can challenge an umpire’s call; or 2) a system where the umpire knows before making each call what the automated zone would have called the pitch.
“We had enough of a positive reaction to the challenge system that we felt it was important to continue testing both systems – the full ABS and the challenge system,” Manfred said. “Doing one in Triple-A and not doing the other didn’t seem like a good test to us in terms of what might be the best system at the big league level.
“I think number 1, in terms of what we hope to learn, is getting a firmer read on player preferences between the two systems. Obviously, that is a very important issue for us. And I also think that you have umpires that are much closer to the level of the big leagues, and it’s important to collect their input as well.
“So this is an ongoing process, and I want to be clear about that, a lot of things get written: we don’t have a fixed idea or timeline on ABS. When and if ABS makes it to the big leagues, it will be a product of the deliberations of the new joint competition committee.”
Roaming radio booths, or lack thereof
The Toronto Blue Jays are one of the teams that don’t send their radio announcers out on the road. Manfred was asked how he feels about clubs whose radio booths don’t travel.
“Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of baseball on the radio,” Manfred said. “And I can’t tell you that I’ve really noticed a significant difference, partly because I’m not sure which clubs are doing what. So I’m just not qualified to give you a good answer on that.”
(Photo: Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports)