King Kaufman's Sports Daily

MLB's exclusive deal with DirecTV: Just the latest "screw you" to the game's best fans. Plus: A Pro Bowl item!



Salon Staff
February 9, 2007 10:00PM (UTC)

You've heard by now of the nearly done deal in which Major League Baseball will sell its Extra Innings package exclusively to DirecTV's 15 million subscribers for $700 million over seven years.

The package, which allows fans anywhere to watch up to 60 out-of-town game broadcasts a week, has been available for five years on DirecTV, on the Dish Network and on cable systems. About 75 million customers had access to it.

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This must be a big deal because politicians are grandstanding about it.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking for an investigation. Sen Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has been a critic of the NFL's similar exclusive deal with DirecTV, told the New York Times, "I've asked my antitrust people to do research to confirm my preliminary judgment that it's an antitrust violation. But I don't think I'll be able to stop it."

Yes, it's very difficult to stop Major League Baseball from doing what it wants to do on antitrust grounds because MLB is exempt from antitrust laws, thanks to a 1922 Supreme Court decision that, nonsensically, declared baseball isn't interstate commerce. Congress has chosen to do nothing about that ruling in the 85 years since except a 1998 act limiting the antitrust exemption in labor matters.

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Extra Innings customers who can't or don't want to sign up for DirecTV are squawking, though as the hardest of hardcore fans, people willing to pay $179 a year for the right to watch a dozen or so baseball games every day, they should know this is pretty standard behavior for baseball.

That is:

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Dear best customers,

Screw you.

Love,
MLB

That's because baseball, like most sports entities, knows it's not going to lose its best fans. There's almost nothing baseball can throw at its most dedicated customers that will make them go away. A decade of Fox being the national broadcast TV network is all the evidence we need to back up that assertion.

As Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus wrote last month in an insightful piece reluctantly defending the deal, "You simply don't go from being such a big fan of baseball that you would purchase 1,200 games a year on satellite to a non-fan based on one decision."

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What MLB will get out of the deal will be $30 million a year over the reported bid of the cable pay-per-view service inDemand, plus a dedicated MLB channel on the basic tier beginning in 2009. There are 30 teams, so the gain would be $1 million per year per team, or about the salary of a utility infielder.

Baseball and DirecTV have both been mum.

As Sheehan points out, though, the deal would have hidden benefits for baseball. Extra Innings customers who don't have a view of the southern sky, a requirement for satellite, or simply don't want to switch to DirecTV, would be driven to the home team's local TV coverage for their baseball fix. Many teams at least partially own or are owned by their broadcast outlets, so higher ratings directly benefit the clubs.

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Those who want out-of-town games would be driven to MLB.tv, baseball's online source for streaming games. MLB wouldn't have to share the $79.95 per season it collects for that service, as it has to share the subscription fee with whoever carries Extra Innings.

Now, I hear you asking, who wants to watch baseball on a computer instead of a TV? The answer, courtesy of MLB: Screw you. You'll take what we give you.

I don't know enough about the intricacies of broadcast deals to know if MLB comes out ahead financially on this deal. My bet would be that in the short term, it does. MLB is all about the short term.

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MLB isn't run by idiots. It's run by people who, if their grandmothers were drowning and you offered them a quarter now or a rope now and a dollar next year, would take the quarter. MLB is good at doing what makes money today, tomorrow be damned.

I do know enough about business to know that it's usually not a good idea to piss off the customer base, particularly the best, most dedicated customers, though baseball has been testing this hypothesis for years now. It's generally not wise to tell a huge chunk of your best customers, "Go away."

Major League Baseball plays its most important games late at night, after huge numbers of kids in the Eastern and Central time zones are in bed. It has mostly priced families of modest or even middle-class means out of stadiums. It has sold its national broadcast rights to a network that does a fine job on football, but is actively hostile to baseball and produces broadcasts that incense fans.

And now it's planning on restricting access to the product, or forcing many customers -- many of the most dedicated customers -- into using less-than-satisfactory methods if they want to maintain access.

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Major League Baseball has been setting attendance and revenue records lately, but one lesson in sports is that just because something's happening today doesn't mean it's always going to be happening. If you don't believe me, ask your parents about the time when the Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds were consistent powerhouses. Ask them how the Atlanta Braves were doing in those days.

MLB has had the same mantra for a good decade now: "Screw the best fans, screw the future, go for whatever maximizes revenue today." The game caught me early. I'm stuck for life. My kids are 4 and 1. I can't imagine them becoming baseball fans, even sharing a house with me. The hurdles to entry are just too high. The dare is not seductive enough to take.

Full disclosure: I'm a DirecTV customer with a clear view of the southern sky. I subscribe to Extra Innings, with Salon reimbursing me for the fee as a business expense. I'm unaffected by the proposed deal.

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The NFL's war on drugs [PERMALINK]

The NFL is likely to institute a rule that would ban players who tested positive for steroids from receiving postseason awards that year, including a spot in the Pro Bowl, according to news reports.

Players are reported to be behind the idea, though union chief Gene Upshaw has raised concerns with commissioner Roger Goodell about the proposed rule's effect on incentive clauses in player contracts.

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The rule will probably be known casually as the Merriman rule, after San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawn Merriman, who is at the Pro Bowl this week despite having served a four-game suspension this season for a positive test. Merriman maintains his innocence, but also told reporters he supports the proposed rule.

I'm a little worried here. Is there any evidence that a rule banning players from the Pro Bowl for drug use wouldn't encourage drug use?

I know a rule banning fans from watching the Pro Bowl if we're caught with drugs would send us all racing down to the old dope peddler, but we don't get a free trip to Hawaii. Think a free trip to Hawaii would be the only thing to stand in the way of your using if you were making NFL money?

If the NFL really wanted to knock out steroids, it would force those who test positive to play every down of every exhibition game the following season. You'd get a clean league then, boy.

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On vacation [PERMALINK]

And speaking of free trips to Hawaii, this column will be on vacation next week. I just mention the free trip to Hawaii in case someone is feeling generous. Remember: This column is for sale.

We'll talk again on Tuesday, Feb. 20, after Presidents Day. In the meantime, here's this column's archive, and, in case reading the 1,005 stories therein doesn't take you the whole week, here's Salon's archive of stories about Claire Danes.

Previous column: Sports leagues shouldn't accept intolerance

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