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BenFred: It would be nice if baseball showed it cared about the fans who can't currently watch games

BenFred: It would be nice if baseball showed it cared about the fans who can't currently watch games

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APTOPIX World Series Dodgers Fans Baseball

Baseball fans sit in their cars outside Dodger Stadium and watch the television broadcast of Game 6 of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The Atlantic League is going to help Major League Baseball by moving the mound back a foot. Class AAA teams are adopting enlarged bases to encourage steals. Major league teams now plant a runner on second in extra innings.

There’s nothing MLB commissioner Rob Manfred won’t try in his attempts to save his sport.

Well, there’s one thing.

The tinkerer in chief and the owners he represents don’t seem very willing to get serious about helping the growing percentage of people who want to watch baseball on TV, but can’t.

Can you imagine how fast Manfred would move to make a change if he learned there was one rule change that would grow some team’s audience by at least 10 percent?

Post-Dispatch baseball writer Derrick Goold and KMOX’s Kevin Wheeler debate how to improve the pace of play and get more action in baseball games. They have opposite views on changing the strike zone.

He would make it happen in an instant. He would declare baseball saved.

Yet Manfred and the owners he works for remain mostly MIA when it comes to pushing for a solution to baseball’s growing TV crisis.

The combination of regional sports networks clashing with cable, satellite and streaming providers and MLB’s myopic, archaic blackout rules is keeping fans from watching their favorite teams. For many, it’s come down to the choice of traditional cable or no baseball — and that’s if traditional cable is even an option. These are not people whose attention spans have shriveled to the point they need to be pulled into the game with gimmicks. These are Americans who are eager to spend their hard-earned money to watch America’s pastime, and they are being ignored.

How many of you reading this won’t be able to watch this Cardinals road trip? It has been estimated that at least 10 percent of Cardinals fans are currently not able to watch the Redbirds on TV with their current setups. Add that to the Blues fans who have been left out in the cold almost every time the hometown hockey team hits the ice.

Some of you are Dish Network subscribers who have been left stranded by the standoff between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Dish TV about what fee is fair to carry the regional sports network now known as Bally Sports Midwest. Others are cord-cutters turned streamers — YouTube TV, Hulu or others — whose streaming service can’t come to common ground with Sinclair about a price. And then there are the MLB.TV subscribers who are paying a stiff fee to watch every team but their favorite one, thanks to the league’s blackout rules that block streaming of games within regional footprints to protect exclusivity rights paid for by the regional sports networks. Did you know that an MLB.TV purchaser in Las Vegas can’t watch the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers, the Padres, the Angels, the Athletics or the Giants?

My Post-Dispatch colleague and Mizzou beat writer Dave Matter can’t watch Cardinals baseball in Columbia, Mo. The expert of all things black-and-gold is seeing red. He could change providers, but there’s no guarantee that one won’t soon enter a standoff of its own.

My pal McGraw Milhaven only wants to talk about one thing when I call in to his KTRS radio show. He’s spending $250 per month between YouTube TV and MLB.TV. He can watch the Olympics channel, but can’t get Bally Sports Midwest on his setup. No Cardinals. No Blues.

My dad’s in the same boat out in the cornfields of mid-Missouri. His Dish TV subscription used to carry Fox Sports Midwest and Fox Sports Kansas City. Now he can’t get either, by their new names. He doesn’t want to change companies. He would consider MLB.TV, but not if he has to lie about his location using a virtual private network, or VPN, to get around the blackout. Some of you can relate to his decision. He’s just finding something else to watch.

Manfred, you have a problem.

Almost half of Southern California could not watch the Dodgers for six seasons due to a disagreement between Charter Spectrum and carriers that finally came to an end. Fans of the Orioles and Nationals just found out a clash between Dish TV and regional sports network MASN means they will have to switch packages if they want to see their teams play. And then there’s the mess with Sinclair, which purchased regional sports networks like Fox Sports Midwest from Disney in 2019, and promptly started a standoff with Dish TV and multiple prominent streaming services about carriage fees. It’s resulted in Arizona-based fans of the Diamondbacks, Suns and Coyotes now feeling the same bite as Minnesota-based fans of the Wild and Twins, which is the same one felt by Blues and Cardinals fans, and others.

It’s very easy to find finger-pointing between the companies and carriers.

It’s very hard to find anything but an exasperated shrug from baseball, locally or nationally.

Why should the Cardinals raise a stink when they are making something like $450,000 per game from the contract? Why should baseball take on this issue when it’s getting paid?

Here’s why.

Because baseball is fooling itself if it thinks fans know or care enough about the intricacies of broadcast rights to pick a side between Sinclair and a satellite or streaming service.

Because baseball is fooling itself if it thinks this problem is not driving away existing fans from a sport that is twisting itself in knots in order to draw new fans.

Because baseball is fooling itself if it thinks any of us believe it can’t influence this matter. Baseball has a seat at this table. For a long time. The more than $1 billion, 15-year TV deal the Cardinals agreed to in 2015 runs through the 2032 season. Leverage exists. For example, teams have commitments to advertisers who were told their in-ballpark advertisements would be viewed by a certain number of eyes watching each broadcast, a number that is now shrinking. Any deal can be adjusted. Contracts are amended all the time. Where’s the urgency?

It should start at the top. Baseball fans who just want to watch games see Manfred more interested in rule changes and the All-Star Game relocation than helping them see their team. They are not just souring on networks and providers. They smell greed. They’re mad at baseball, and it will turn into ambivalence eventually.

Every night a baseball game is not airing in a living room that would watch it but can’t, an alternative choice is made. A movie is streamed. A video game is played. A family doesn’t see the shot of the ballpark that makes it decide to buy tickets. A kid doesn’t ask for that jersey for Christmas. And so on.

Already this season Cardinals fans who don’t have a way to watch games without going to the socially-distanced ballpark have missed the thrills of an emotional home-opening ceremony, Nolan Arenado’s first home run at home and Yadier Molina’s 2,000th game behind the plate.

How many more moments will be missed?

If Manfred wants to save baseball, he should spend some time fighting for current fans who can’t watch.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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