Cutting the Cord: The MLB.TV Story

For those of you that read my previous article on cutting the cord, one of the things that I talked about several times was my desire to watch baseball games.  Specifically baseball games that include my Cleveland Indians playing.  (Who just swept the Boston Red Sox, by the way.  This will be the only time all season that I’m gloating over my first-place team.)

I have tried to do my due diligence, and visited their website to find out what it costs, and what kinds of restrictions I might be subjected to.  Right on the registration page (in the fine print at the bottom), there’s some very specific text that made me want to investigate further:

Regular Season Local Live Blackout: All live games on MLB.TV and available through MLB.com At Bat are subject to local blackouts. Such live games will be blacked out in each applicable Club’s home television territory, regardless of whether that Club is playing at home or away.

Thankfully, they provide a link to a page to figure out if I’m in the blackout area.  It states: “To find out which Club’s live games are blacked out in your current location, click here.”  Here’s what I see after following that link:

image

OK, it’s doing an IP address lookup, and for some reason, it thinks I’m in Michigan!  Awesome!  I should sign up right now!  But wait..what’s that other box at the bottom of the page?

“To find out which Club’s live games are blacked out in the area where you will be watching the game, enter the zip code of that area here and click Go:”

When I do a zip code lookup, the results are a little more bleak:

image

Three teams are blocked out?  That’s crazy!  I am no closer than 2 hours from any of these three teams, but they are blacking the games out to me, I assume, because they want me to attend the game instead.  This is more confusing than I’d like.  There’s no way I can drive 2.5 hours each way, each day there’s an Indians game being played.  That’s unreasonable.  I should call them to figure out how this is EXACTLY determined, so that I can be confident that I won’t be paying $119 for a season of blacked-out games.

The Phone Call

I decided to call them at their toll-free number, specifically because they encouraged me to on their website:

“If you think we have inaccurately determined your blackout restrictions, you may call Customer Service at 866.800.1275.”

It really didn’t surprise me that “America’s Game” outsources their call center, but I was very patient with the gentleman on the other line.  I had a simple question, and figured I could get a simple answer, regardless of the call center’s location in the world.

I explained the situation much like I did for you earlier.  I’m getting conflicting results from their website lookup tools, and I just want to know how this will be determined before I subscribe.  The final answer I received from the person on the phone was that my billing zip code will ultimately be the deciding factor in which games are blacked out.

That was depressing news.

But I called to his attention another line from their website’s blackout restrictions legalese:

Note MLB.com live game blackouts are determined in part by IP address. MLB.com At Bat live game blackouts are determined using one or more reference points, such as GPS and software within your mobile device. The Zip Code search is offered for general reference only.

This directly conflicts with what the guy on the phone told me, so I just wanted to make sure that I completely understood.  In their FAQs, I found another interesting tidbit that I brought up as well:

If you are traveling and are accessing the Internet through a VPN connection (or other secure network connection), you might be getting a blackout message because the host IP Address for the VPN is within the restricted range for the game that you are trying to access. In this case, we suggest that you try the following: log off your the VPN connection (or other secure network connection) and access the Internet through a local connection.

This definitely suggests to me that they will also black out games if I am traveling.  So if I were in Seattle for work, I would have the Mariners’ games blacked out.  That’s fair, I suppose, but it’s in direct conflict with what the man on the phone is telling me.

I called these points out, and he stuck to his guns.  He continued to tell me that zip code was the determining factor, and it was at that point that I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere speaking to him anymore.  I was talking to a person reading a script, and NOT someone that can make critical thinking decisions based on the conversation they are currently participating.

Perhaps I can make more headway by emailing them with my specific problem, using screenshots from their website.

The Email Chain

Yesterday, I sent MLB.TV an email at customerservice@website.mlb.com.  The contents were very similar to my opening paragraphs of this article, including the exact same screenshots:


4/6/2011 7:12 PM

I am considering getting MLB.TV for the season (as I am no longer a cable subscriber), but I’m getting a very confusing message from your website about blackout restrictions.

When I look up my IP address, it gives me this message: [IP IMAGE FROM ABOVE]

And when I do a zip code lookup (for my home address), it gives me this message: [ZIP CODE IMAGE FROM ABOVE]

Which criteria will be used in determining my blackout restrictions?  I am a rabid Cleveland Indians fan, but I live 2.5 hours from Progressive Field.  I don’t think it’s reasonable to blackout someone who has no capacity to make it to games regularly due to driving distance.

I’m only interested in purchasing an MLB.TV subscription if I can watch the Indians play baseball every day.  Otherwise it’s pretty useless to me.


Pretty straightforward, right?  Here’s the response I received:


Response Via Email(Customer Support) – 04/07/2011 03:11 PM Dear Jeff Blankenburg,

Thank you for sending your email.

We apologize for the confusion. In order to thoroughly research your inquiry, we will need all of the information listed below. Once received, we will look into this query within 48 hours and advise you accordingly:

1) IP Address (your IP address will be automatically rendered when you log-on to www.whatismyip.com)

2) Email address associated with your account including your zipcode.

3) Team name that you have been blocked from watching

4) The address from which you are attempting to watch the game

Should you have any further questions about your account, please contact Customer Service toll-free at 1-866-800-1275.

Thank you again for taking the time to write.

Sincerely,

MLB.com Customer Support


Even though most of those questions don’t apply to my scenario AT ALL, I decided reiterating my point couldn’t hurt, so I answered their questions.


04/07/2011 3:16 PM

1) According to whatismyip.com, my IP address is 69.47.65.31.

2) I do not currently have an account, but my zipcode is 43082.

3) I have not yet been blocked from viewing any team, because I don’t have an account yet. I am inquiring about whether a subscription will allow me to watch the Cleveland Indians.

4) I am primarily going to be watching games from my home, at [address redacted].


You can see I’m getting a little annoyed at this point, because it already appears as if they’ve not read my original email message.  Here is their well-thought out response to my answers to their questions.


Response Via Email(Customer Support) – 04/07/2011 09:07 PM Dear Jeff Blankenburg :

Thank you for your recent email regarding MLB.TV blackout restrictions.

The below link will take you to the MLB.TV landing page, as the blackout restrictions are stated in full on this page and you may look up individual teams’ blackout zip codes here as well.

http://www.mlb.com/mlb/subscriptions/index.jsp

Customers are also blacked out within the United States on Saturday afternoons & Sunday evenings due to the fact that networks have exclusive rights to games that are shown during this time period. Our Canadian customers will also find that there are live game restrictions for the Toronto Blue Jays.

If you are still experiencing technical difficulties, please feel free to reply or you may call the toll free customer service number at 1-866-800-1275.

Thank you for using MLB.com.

Sincerely,

Customer Response Team

MLB.com


We have officially come full circle.  I started with a question that was caused by confusing information on a specific web page, and through some of the most inept customer service I have ever encountered, they have now directed me to visit that web page for the information I‘m seeking.  Are you kidding me?


4/8/2011 8:08 AM

This is absolutely ridiculous.  I’ve officially been taken in a giant circle.  My initial request stated that the information that I was getting from http://www.mlb.com/mlb/subscriptions/index.jsp was inconsistent, and that I was looking for clarification about what the blackout restrictions actually applied to me.

The IP lookup on your suggested web page tells me that the Detroit Tigers are blacked out:

The below-listed Club(s) is within the searched home television territory, and MLB.TV is subject to blackout for all regular season live games for these Club(s):

Detroit Tigers

Your IP Address: 69.47.65.31

Approximate Zip Code: 48084

The zip code lookup on your suggested web page tells me that the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates are blacked out:

The below-listed Club(s) is within the searched home television territory, and MLB.TV is subject to blackout for all regular season live games for these Club(s):

Cincinnati Reds

Pittsburgh Pirates

Cleveland Indians

Approximate Zip Code: 43082

Which one is correct?  I don’t see a trial of your service available, and I’m not willing to give you $119 only to find out that I can’t watch the ONE team that I’m interested in watching.

Can someone give me a clear answer as to what my specific situation will be?


UPDATED (4/11/2011) In a remarkable turn of events, my blog post got me a response that was completely inverse to my experiences thus far.  Within two hours of the publication of this article, I received a phone call from the team at MLB.TV.  I wish I had gotten some names, but I was caught off guard by the call, and it was moments before I was boarding a plane to Las Vegas for Mix 2011.

There was one gentleman who seemed to be a stakeholder in MLB.TV, and he introduced a technology expert on the call who seemed to be very plugged in to their technology stack and how it would work.  We had about a 15 minute phone call, and during that time, they were sympathetic to my situation, and wanted to do anything they could to help.  It’s incredibly flattering to know that something I post on my blog can result in an emergency phone call less than 2 hours later. It was really reassuring to have these guys call me, even if it didn’t get me the answer I wanted.

Anyways, after a few minutes of explaining my situation, they confirmed what I’d hoped not to hear: as a non-cable subscriber, I am not capable of watching my home team.  With cable, I can get it, but because of blackout restrictions that are specifically in place to protect the cable companies, I’m not able to watch the games any other way.  It sucks, but at least they finally gave me a straight answer.

Looks like I’ll be spending some time at a local watering hole to catch my Cleveland Indians.

12 thoughts on “Cutting the Cord: The MLB.TV Story

  1. How about you buy my account, I’ll buy yours and then we use proxies to top it all off?

  2. Because they apparently don’t know how their own service works, here’s my experience.

    It definitely blocks based on IP address. A few years back, I was living in Germany and was able to see every game. My dad, who had my account information as well (because I wasn’t going to stay up until 1:30 AM to watch a baseball game live, I tended not to use the package all that much myself…), would get blocked when trying to watch Reds/Indians/Pirates games. Now that I am back in Columbus, I’m blocked from seeing Reds, Indians, or Pirates games as well. I never really tried spoofing my IP address to get around this–I’m not that interested in Reds, Indians, or Pirates games–but that probably would be workable.

    Andy and Tim are right about the reasons. The MLB broadcast rights are distributed regionally. And sometimes, they make mistakes–there isn’t a Pirates broadcast in Columbus (even when they were good, and that’s going back a ways, there wasn’t one).

  3. If both have direct tv Can a cleveland fan and a phillies fan both sign up for mlb extra innings and then exchange recievers? I know it is not legit but I am well beyond legit solutions

  4. Oh the benefits of being a Chicago Sports Fan in Indy 🙂 I’m THIS close to killling my tv services…between netflix and hulu plus, I get the majority of shows I want to watch plus movies. My only concern is sports…NBA, NHL, NFL. I don’t think NBA or NFL have live streaming packages yet so I’m stuck. I’m only an MLB fan during the postseason…the average regular season game just doesn’t do it for me.

  5. JB – I have the same problems with the NHL package. If I decide to dump cable, I’ll be blacked out of the Jacket games I want to see. (Well, want to see until they’re eliminated from the playoffs around Valentines day.)

    However, it has nothing to do with travel distance to/from the team you love, it has everything to do with who owns the television rights for the area you live. So, MLB and the NHL aren’t protecting their own teams, they’re protecting the local cable/tv companies that hold the broadcast rights where you live. (Which has me really wondering about the Pirates, who shows the Pirates here in Columbus?)

    • I’ve had the same problem with cord cutting (as I mentioned in the last post). Short of the unethical route of faking your IP’s geolocation with a proxy in a cloud somewhere, you’re screwed.

      It’s the RSNs, like Tim said, that are being protected by blackouts. The thinking is, if everyone could just get MLB.TV (or NHL Gamecenter) nobody would watch their local channel, thus starving it of ratings, and thus, ad revenue. Since these out-of-market packages are just showing the local broadcasts nationwide, they need them to survive. It’s a crappy catch-22 for those of us who happen to live near the team we want to watch.

  6. If the need arises, there are some other, shall we say, less than legitimate ways of streaming these games live (not just proxies btw), and I know a guy who can help. And you can always fall back on radio, which is a great way to enjoy baseball games too.

  7. I just wasted over 20 minutes of my life arguing with the folks at MLB.tv telling them that there isn’t a Pirates broadcast anywhere in Columbus, Ohio, and they keep telling me there is. I asked who carries Root Sports Pittsburgh in Columbus, and they either refused to answer or said “I don’t know.” I flat told them that they were lying to me. Don’t waste your money on this if you really have a team you want to watch, unless you live several thousand miles away.

  8. I came across this blog today after frustration at finding out how the MLB blackout rules affect me. I was very excited to sign up for MLBtv only to find out that me, living in Eau Claire, WI am banned from viewing the MN Twins AND the Brewers…the two teams I would want to watch. I don’t have or want cable TV so I guess I will just not watch baseball. Thanks MLB!!

  9. The bottom line for them is, they have a monopoly on a product die-hard fans want, so once they take your money, they feel they just don’t have to give a shit. They’re not interested in improving or maintaining a decent product, they’re only interested in taking as many poor schmucks who love the game out of their hard-earned dough. Just another fine example of F-ing corporate thieves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s