- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Many football fans in the D.C. area may have to upgrade their cable package in order to receive the NFL Network this season.

A judge from the Supreme Court of New York last week ruled that Comcast can move the network from its basic digital package to a special digital sports tier, which costs about $5 more per month. The NFL had opposed the move to a sports tier because it would hurt its efforts to expand the network to as many households as possible. The NFL Network could lose as many as 7 million of its 41 million subscribers through the move.

And, Major League Baseball team owners this week are meeting with league execs to to discuss, among other things, the confusing broadcast rules that lead many fans to be blacked out of seeing the team from their home market.

Under MLB’s rules, every team has a broadcast territory that can often stretch for hundreds of miles. People living in Oregon, for instance, are viewed by MLB as Oakland Athletics fans, while people in Alaska are Mariners fans. This leads to a lot of confusion, and it’s made worse when you figure that the regional sports networks that televise teams games are often not available in the far-reaching areas of the broadcast territory. (People in North Carolina, for instance, are in the territory share by the Nationals and Orioles, but the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is unavailable in some portions of the state.)

The worst part, though, is that fans who are willing to pay for the full “Extra Innings” package to get all out-of-market MLB games are blacked out of seeing their team’s games because they reside in that team’s broadcast territory EVEN IF THE GAMES AREN’T ACTUALLY AVAILABLE ON TELEVISION IN THAT MARKET.

So, let’s say I’m a fan in Alaska and I want to catch the Mariners. Fox Sports Northwest, however, doesn’t reach me in Alaska. So, I decide to pay $160 for Extra Innings, but still can’t get Mariners games, because I’m located in the Mariners home market.

In some places, like Nevada, fans reside in as many as four markets, making the blackout situation maddening.

The solution to this is to redraw broadcast territories to reflect how regional sports networks get distributed, and find some way to ensure that blackouts only effect those people who can otherwise catch the games on television. The league could institute blackouts not simply on the basis of location, but whether the regional sports networks distribute to that area.

Any changes to broadcast territories, of course, requires the approval of team owners, who will not take kindly to a change. Recall that Peter Angelos objected to the Nationals moving to D.C. in part because he would be forced to share a large broadcast territory that he paid for when buying the team.

It’s unclear if any changes will be enacted this week, but MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is well aware of fan complaints and has vowed to get the situation resolved.

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