Share this article

print logo

FOUL TERRITORY Despite the explosion in media options for baseball fans, major-league blackout rules mean WNY viewers can't always get what they want

It is possible that more Western New York sports fans know the National Football League's blackout regulations by heart than they do the Pledge of Allegiance: A game must sell out 72 hours prior to the kickoff in order to be televised within a 75-mile radius of the stadium. The rules were signed into law by Congress in 1973, and like them or not, they are clear-cut and easy to understand.

To dip into Major League Baseball's blackout rules, on the other hand, is to wade into a quagmire that might qualify for emergency aid from FEMA. The more you learn about them, the less you understand.

How silly can the rules get? There are five major league teams that play within 415 miles of Buffalo, and the closest of them -- the Toronto Blue Jays, whose stadium is 100 miles from here -- is the only one that in Western New York is not blacked out on network television or online. Canadian cable networks Rogers Sportsnet and TSN will carry 145 of the Jays' 162 games, but because the team has no over-the-air broadcaster, Blue Jays games are generally not affected by MLB blackout rules in the U.S.

Baseball has no mileage radius rule, as football has. Rather, each baseball club has a set of counties and ZIP codes that define the territory in which its games are protected. Were the ZIP codes drawn up by three guys in a room in Cooperstown? Were they handed down by Judge Kennesaw "Mountain" Landis on his death bed? No one seems to know.

Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' vice president of public relations, said that over the years, "the clubs and Major League Baseball worked closely to outline the territorial guidelines. We've had input, [but] you don't always get what you ask for."

A Major League Baseball executive who spoke on the condition he not be identified said that each club has a say in staking out its protected territory. He admitted he wasn't sure how long ago the policies were set and the territories chosen.

This much is agreed upon: Games of the New York Mets and Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates are "protected" in the Western New York market, meaning that when ESPN, ESPN2 or Fox's Channel 29 carries a game featuring one of those teams, we will -- with some exceptions -- see an alternate game here.

Satellite TV subscribers who sign up for the Major League Ticket package will also find those same four teams blacked out, as will those who pay for "MLB.TV Live," which broadcasts games over the Web from MLB.com.

> Net protection

What's being "protected" are the rights of the local broadcasting entities that contract with those teams to carry their games. The YES Network, for example, shows the majority of the Yankees' games, so other networks carrying one of the same games must defer to YES, in most cases. If the Yankees and Red Sox play a Friday night game that is carried by ESPN and YES, ESPN would send an alternate game to Western New York.

Yankees fans here don't mind much because YES is widely available on our cable TV systems. The Mets this season move to their own network, SportsNet New York, which is expected to reach agreement with Adelphia to come into our market.

The Indians and Pirates each had a modest TV presence in Western New York a decade ago, but those days are long gone. With no Tribe or Bucs games otherwise being broadcast here, what exactly is being protected?

Again, answers are hard to come by.

"I don't know where the market line is anymore," said Rick Karnath of Adelphia. "Cleveland will tell you there are season-ticket holders from Western New York, Pittsburgh will tell you [the same thing]. There's a very gray, thin line on where the lines are."

The blackout of Indians games is especially galling to fans of the Tribe and of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Cleveland's top farm team.

Bisons Vice President and General Manager Mike Buczkowski is not shy about his disdain for the blackout policy.

"Especially now that we are 11 years into our [affiliation] agreement," he said. "And there are games in which there are nine former Bisons starting the game in Jacobs Field.

"I think it's ridiculous that they think that by blacking out the games that people are going to go to more games at Jacobs Field from Buffalo. . . . On a Tuesday night in Buffalo I'm not saying, 'Do you want to drive to Jacobs Field or watch the game on TV?' It's just not practical."

The Indians' DiBiasio said that in "a perfect world, we wish that the Buffalo region was able to access Cleveland Indians baseball more easily. But having said that, we are one member of an organization, an industry called Major League Baseball, and must abide by the rules that everyone agrees to."

There are some instances in which a nationally televised game featuring the Indians, Pirates, Mets or Yankees can be seen in Western New York. ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball games, for example, are the baseball equivalent to Monday Night Football games, meaning the network holds exclusive national rights to the games, so they can be seen anywhere ESPN is available, no matter who is playing. (The Indians' opener against the Chicago White Sox will be on ESPN Sunday night.) And ESPN is allowed to duplicate the game of a regional or local rights-holder twice a year for Monday night baseball broadcasts.

> Total access -- almost

For media consumers of baseball, this is a great time to be alive. Televised games are delivered on the air, on satellite and cable TV, over the Internet and, coming soon, on cell phones. Radio broadcasts are beamed nationwide via Major League Baseball's Web site and on XM Satellite Radio.

We can get pitch-by-pitch accounts of the games on computers, cell phones, pagers, pretty much any device besides our coffee makers -- and they're probably working on that.

And yet, even for those willing to pay a fee, you can't always get what you want.

MLB.com has a number of subscription options, both all-season and a la carte, for watching and listening to games online. (And there are no blackouts of the radio broadcasts online.) Watching the live TV feed is what MLB calls an out-of-market package, meaning its intent is for fans to watch games that don't involve teams in their TV market.

Again, the Mets, Yankees, Indians and Pirates are considered in our market, so we may not see their games live online. We do have the option of seeing a replay of their video broadcasts, after the game has been played. To enjoy watching a sporting event after you already know the outcome, you must be either a real baseball fanatic or a devotee of Olympic figure skating.

The best alternative for video-starved Indians and Pirates followers is paying for a subscription to DirecTV, the satellite provider that carries a number of regional networks, such as Fox Sports Ohio and Fox Sports Pittsburgh. A good number of Tribe and Bucs games appear on those channels, and DirecTV is the only way to access those channels in our market. DirecTV and its sports package start at $36 a month for the first three months.

Is there any hope for Indians and Pirates fans in Buffalo who can't afford satellite TV?

The unnamed baseball executive said it's unlikely that the clubs will make any changes to their protected territories.

"For the most part, they kind of just are what they are," he said.

One possibility that Tribe fans can cling to is the fact that the Indians have started their own cable network this year, SportsTime Ohio. The Bisons' Buczkowski said he has begun lobbying for the network to be shown in Buffalo, and perhaps even broadcast a few Bisons games on Indians' off days, as the YES Network does with Columbus.
Buczkowski thinks such an arrangement would be in the Indians' best interest.

"How many more fans could they gain by exposing the Indians games on TV for younger people that might become Cleveland Indians fans?"

e-mail: gconnors@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment