MLB.TV: Free Market Gone Wrong

Glenn DarbySenior Analyst IOctober 1, 2008

Thomas Friedman once wrote: "This historical debate is over.  The answer is free-market capitalism." 

There are few who argue with this statement.  We have essentially prospered as a nation by removing trade barriers and promoting free trade of goods and services.  Obviously, this method can create some problems, but, overall, it has worked tirelessly for the last 40 years, growing the American economy alongside the rest of the world.

One of the biggest problems that has faced free-market capitalism is monopoly development.  The U.S. government has broken up plenty of them throughout the decades.  In recent years, though, many operations have been allowed to consolidate and buy out the competition, leading to higher prices.

Major League Baseball has a clear monopoly when it comes to professional baseball.  Federal Baseball Club v. National League clearly defined baseball as a monopoly. 

While the game has changed significantly, baseball has retained its exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and from the regulation of interstate commerce.  Despite Curt Flood and the multiple challenges brought to the Supreme Court, Major League Baseball stands defiantly against the free market.

And this is where the consumer begins to feel the pinch. 

While baseball must compete against Hollywood, video games, and other sports for your entertainment dollars, for those who are baseball addicts, there is really only one place to go.  With the encouragement of exclusive media deals, Major League Baseball has made it even more difficult for fans to access the sport that they love.  This stands as a dramatic and gigantic step backwards in the face of the free market.

Completely ignoring all of the problems with MLB.TV that viewers in Iowa and Nevada face when it comes to trying to watch baseball and completely ignoring the fact that viewers must subscribe to a cable or satellite service to watch their home team, baseball has ruined the postseason with their available MLB.TV package. 

Last year, TBS signed a seven-year deal for exclusive rights to cover the first round of the MLB playoffs and one of the divisions of the second round.  ESPN gets to cover the other division of the second round.  Fox has rights to the World Series.  These exclusivity agreements deny baseball fans exactly what they want: the chance to watch the game.

By 2008, a Dodgers fan in Florida should be able to pop open his cell phone just in time to watch the first pitch against the Cubs tonight.  Instead, he will have to wait until he gets home, and, hopefully, he will have subscribed to one of the outrageous cable/satellite plans in his area.  Otherwise, he is stuck listening to the radio. 

By 2008, a Phillies fan in Seattle should be able to log on from work and watch Philadelphia take on the Brewers during his lunch break via his computer.  Instead, he will have to wait until 45 minutes after the game is over to watch on his laptop. 

By giving exclusive rights to TBS, MLB limited its ability to make money off of baseball fans.  Instead, MLB chose to make money off of TBS and let the fans suffer. 

Instead of iPhone applications and desktop widgets and video on-demand, MLB chose to go with limited coverage.  It chose to take the highest bidder instead of the collective bids of fans everywhere.  Instead of free over-the-air TV, MLB opted for premium cable packages that can run up to $100 a month. 

MLB.TV Postseason allows you to listen to the games from your computer.  A free radio on your desk somewhat nullifies this. Then, you are given the gift of 45-minute delayed video. 

If you are able to spend three hours avoiding the score and the outcome of the game, the second you log into your MLB.TV account it shows you the final score of the game. Good luck trying to watch a tape-delayed game without knowing the outcome. 

There are some nonsense text message updates and other gimmicks to try and improve the package, but not one is worthwhile. 

Simply put, the MLB.TV package is a waste and is no competition to cable/satellite.

As Friedman has also said, "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist." 

That hidden fist needs to come from somewhere.  The fans, the team owners, or the government needs to step in and insist that access is the top priority. 

It was easier to watch the 1968 playoffs than it will be to watch them 40 years later.  By 2048, you will only have two options to watch the Vegas Aces take on the Portland Loggers in the NLCS:  You can go to the game, or you will be able to buy a ticket to watch a guy change a remote scoreboard in each major city.  Cheapest ticket: $6,000.