Sports blackout rules don’t fit Internet Age

In a society whose entertainment is increasingly Web-centric, it was only a matter of time before technology caught up with our desire for streaming video anywhere, anytime. For most, that now means Hulu and Netflix. For sports fans, the next generation arrived with ESPN360 ESPN3 WatchESPN (Reliable service; inconsistent branding). Loads and loads of sporting events from the worldwide leader. Stuff that was airing on ESPN or ESPN2, plus tons of smaller college and second-tier sports not televised anywhere. Watch it live, watch a replay, watch on your computer, on your TV, on your phone. The future is now! Unless:

“We’re sorry, this game is not available in your area.”

Ah, the regional blackout. Designed to protect television and radio networks from hemorrhaging audience share to competing outlets, thus insuring lucrative broadcast rights, blackouts are part of making the games work financially for all parties. Traditionally, it kept national broadcasters from airing games in the two teams’ hometown markets. So, if ESPN wanted to nationally televise a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Detroit Tigers, they can do so. But, folks in Florida and Michigan wouldn’t be able to see the ESPN broadcast, because local television contracts require that the hometown broadcast be the only show in town. Same thing for the NBA, NHL, and major college athletics. There are exceptions, but you get the general principle.

(The NFL blackout policy is much worse. Comparable to a ransom, it further requires a team to sellout its stadium before a game can be televised in that team’s home market. You want TV? Buy up our outrageously priced tickets. At times, it has led to TV stations and advertisers buying up remaining seats at the league’s 72-hours-to-kickoff deadline.)

The Internet messed this up. People are becoming more accustomed to receiving content whenever and wherever they please. And they can… except when it comes to sports, where the old blackout rules carried over into the digital age.

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