The biggest surprise of the 2014 baseball postseason isn't the absence of both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. It isn't the Kansas City Royals, playing baseball in October for the first time since 1985.
The biggest surprise of the 2014 postseason is Major League Baseball's decision to put fans ahead of corporate contracts.
After years of ensuring that baseball fans could only watch the playoffs and World Series if they subscribed to certain television providers, MLB has finally reversed course. The 2014 postseason is available to MLBTV subscribers through a variety of providers and devices.
A few days ago, I wrote a long, ranting post (available below!) about how MLB always puts corporate television contracts ahead of fans. When I started collecting links to complete the post, I was amazed to learn that MLB's policies had changed.
I don't know if MLB was forced to do this in court, or if some smart young executive finally got them to understand that increasing numbers of fans will never access baseball through cable TV, because they watch games on their mobile devices, and if games are not available on those devices, those fans will simply choose another form of entertainment. Or perhaps there was some other scenario.
Whatever happened, it benefits fans. For a few dollars on top of a regular MLB.TV subscription, almost the entire postseason is available. A few National League playoff games aren't included yet, but I suspect that's only a matter of time.
There are still many problems with MLB's pay-per system, but this is a huge step in the right direction. And it's a huge boon to us personally, as we watch baseball via streaming only. I have one complaint, and it's a big one.
WHY DIDN'T THEY DO THIS LAST YEAR????!!!!
The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 and we missed huge swathes of the postseason, while we dealt with tech frustration, outages, and maddening buffering. Wait til next year, indeed. Bring on 2015!
Here's the post I wrote but didn't post.
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mlb puts corporate contracts ahead of fans, now and always
Several years ago, we improved our leisure time options considerably when we got rid of cable TV and went to streaming only. We changed our internet provider from Rogers to Teksavvy, paying less money for unlimited bandwidth (rather than more money for capped useage), and bought a Roku streaming device. I've been thrilled with the results.
We used to pay a lot of money for cable TV and we used it almost exclusively for baseball. Plus we spent even more money to also access games online through MLBTV. Through Roku, we were able to eliminate that duplication and lose an entire monthly bill. Add Netflix streaming through Roku and we were all set.
Except for one very important thing: the baseball postseason.
Postseason games (playoffs plus the World Series) are not available through MLBTV.com. This is not new. In fact, fans are so accustomed to it that many or most don't question it, accepting a ridiculous situation as completely normal. Why aren't postseason games available through a subscription to MLB.com? Because MLB has exclusive contracts with TV providers, to ensure that all fans who want to see postseason games can only do so through those providers. For us that would mean getting cable TV through Rogers, in order to have a Fox affiliate station. In the US, it might mean having DirectTV or some other pay-TV service.
In other words, loyal baseball fans like us who spend money all season to watch every game cannot watch the postseason unless they get cable TV. Major League Baseball generates enormous revenue through these TV contracts, so it allows TV to control access. Fans don't figure into the equation. We are nothing.
I am perfectly aware that this is not a new situation. I did not wake up this morning and suddenly realize that MLB was screwing its fans. I am writing about it because I think many fans have stopped seeing this: it has become an invisible and accepted fact of life. We don't complain to MLB because we feel powerless to change the situation, even though we are the consumers of the product, the end user that baseball needs - in great numbers - to survive.
When MLB players went on strike in 1994, there was a lot of talk about fans leaving the sport. Much was said and written about supposed greedy and selfish players, and occasionally you'd see a mention greedy owners, too. Supposedly there was a dip in attendance as fans turned away. In fact, the sport's steroid-induced offensive surge was encouraged by MLB because it revived interest in baseball.
The 1994-95 strike was in response to team owners having imposed a salary cap. No corresponding cap existed - or will ever exist - on team profits. And the so-called luxury tax, through which teams pay penalties on burgeoning payrolls, does nothing to equalize payrolls among the teams. If the Red Sox or Yankees pay a payroll penalty to the owner of the Twins, nothing compels the Twins to spend that windfall on improving the team.
However, the Major League Baseball Players' Association, i.e. the players' union, refusal to accept a salary cap is usually characterized as greedy, while MLB allowing TV providers to control access, thereby screwing over fans who don't or can't pay for that access, is accepted as normal.
There are some tech fixes and workarounds through which locked-out fans can try to access postseason games. But for true fans, who really want to watch the game, these fixes are very poor substitutes. In 2013, the Red Sox were in the postseason for the first time since we changed to streaming and Roku. We used various tricks and workarounds on our computers, but it was a frustrating and unsatisfying experience. Nothing worked really well. Suggestions from friends - "Why don't you go to a bar?" - were unrealistic. I watch somewhere between 20 and 30 postseason games. A baseball game is around three hours long. I have neither the desire, the energy, nor the money to spend that much time in a bar. Watching the occasional game in a pub is fine for a casual fan, but I'm not setting up shop in a pub for the month of October.
This year, with the Red Sox's abysmal 2014 performance, the postseason isn't as urgent as it might be, but it has the potential to be an exciting postseason in many ways, and I want to watch it. I'm willing to pay extra for access to all the playoff and World Series games. I think that's wrong - I don't think fans should have to pay extra for that! - but I'm willing to do it. But I can't, unless I get cable TV. Because MLB cares more about its TV contracts than its fans. And that sucks.