Any glimmer of hope that displaced baseball fans throughout the country might have had yesterday at the 11th hour were effectively squashed by the astounding greed, duplicity, and incompetence of Major League Baseball, which revealed its true colors in the infamous DirecTV deal.
In a classic case of toe-MAY-toe/toe-MAH-toe, iN Demand (owned by affiliates of the companies that own Time Warner, Comcast and Cox cable systems) offered yesterday to match the satellite company’s controversial $700 million deal to carry baseball’s out-of-market game package, “Extra Innings,” and in addition, match the number of subscribers that would receive the league’s yet-to-be-born baseball network. Fans rejoiced. For about an hour.
That’s when baseball's chief operating officer Bob DuPuy stepped in and revealed that the offer was not in fact “equal.”
"The communication sent to our office today by iN Demand is not responsive to that offer," he said in a statement. "In spite of their public comments, the response falls short of nearly all of the material conditions (among them requirements for carriage of The Baseball Channel and their share of the rights fees for Extra Innings) set forth in the Major League Baseball offer made to them on March 9."
The one bonus that might come out of all this, however, is the pleasure of witnessing Commissioner Bud Selig stammer and plead ignorance once again before a Congressional committee. A Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by (gulp) John Kerry, on the DirecTV fiasco is scheduled for Tuesday in Washington.
In offering to carry The Baseball Network, or whatever the channel that doesn’t even exist is supposed to be called, to 15 million homes, iN Demand was matching the number that DirecTV will beam the network to, which is about 80 percent of its subscriber base. In MLB’s view, they want iN Demand to make their channel available to 80 percent of digital cable subscribers, which would be far greater than 15 million (the number of digital subscribers in the United States is estimated to be somewhere around 32 million, according to the New York Times).
That would mean MLB is demanding that 25.6 million viewers have the baseball network made available to them on a basic tier, something that cable is hesitant to do. The NFL Network, which has been in existence now since 2003, is not even on a basic tier despite carrying prime time NFL contests during the regular season and playoffs, and is embroiled in its own carriage dispute with cable companies, which do not want to charge subscribers a monthly stipend to add the network to a basic tier, not to mention commit to bandwidth for a channel they don't even know will be of any compelling nature. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on paying for most of the basic channels I get as it is, never mind one that doesn’t even exist yet.
But here’s the kicker. While Major League Baseball argues that cable’s denial to offer its channel to 80 percent of its digital base does not constitute a matching offer, it’s impossible for cable to win in that DirecTV does not face the same carriage rights as cable, allowing the dish network to make the channel available to a much broader audience than In Demand can promise.
There were approximately 500,000 subscribers to the “Extra Innings” package last season, about 200,000 via cable providers.
"By rejecting this matching offer, MLB has proven it never intended for iN Demand to have a fair and equal opportunity to bid for Extra Innings,'' iN Demand president Robert Jacobson said. "Our offer was fully responsive to MLB's requirements and public statements.''
What? Like this one?
"We cannot put the interests of what we believe are a relatively small minority of fans over what we believe are the best interests of the entire fan base as a whole," DuPuy said.
What DuPuy needs to realize is that the relatively small minority of fans are those that are going to sign up and find mlb.tv a satisfactory alternative, and in fact, should already be hearing some complaints over the quality of its spring training coverage, which has been described by a few e-mailers already as an archaic product. I’m not sure at what point MLB suits like DuPuy wake up and realize that small minority includes the thousands of signatures on online petitions, the hundreds of responses we’ve received here from irate fans on the matter, or the endless, overheard, and uninitiated conversations with displeased baseball fans I had last weekend in Colorado, where the migration level of displaced followers of the game is likely up there with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
It is THE topic of conversation among fans of teams spread around the country for one reason or another. And if the number of affected fans is only about 5,000, as DirecTV estimated would lose access to games, then I have either run into or heard from a good portion of them.
"The DirecTV people tell me that the number of people who can't get DirecTV is so small that it's unbelievable," Selig told SI.com's John Donovan.
Um, exactly what else were they going to say? "Yeah, Bud, looks like you'll end up losing almost half of those subscribers, but, yeah, good deal, right? We have Doc Brown doing our ads. Doc Brown!"
Besides, DuPuy and Selig’s “small number” assumes that those 200,000 people that they just jilted are going to run directly out to Circuit City and pick up a dish or subscribe to mlb.tv. This is how they get their duplicitous 5,000 number that will be affected by DirecTV’s exclusive deal. The season begins in less than two weeks, mind you. This is one hell of a way to promote your product -- by pulling it away from people who have already paid for it and telling them they need to make alternate plans.
If mlb.tv were a viable option, that would be one thing, but until mlb.com upgrades its connection speed and player capacity, allowing it to be more easily beamed to a TV with the use of AppleTV, or a direct connection that won’t lose video quality, it’s a slap in the face of any discerning baseball fan. And their claim that this wasn’t an offer that fell short of expectations, despite whatever spin they put on it, is a load of bull.
The NFL must be sitting back and laughing at baseball through all of this. If the most popular sport in the country can’t get its network on basic cable, how exactly does baseball think it’s a requirement? Maybe after all this is said and done, the one happy ending might be cable lifting its reluctance to place the NFL Network on a basic tier, just as one final flip of the bird to MLB, which would be one benefit, I suppose. But isn’t it a great day when carriage rights and exclusive rights take precedence over the game’s benefactors, the fans?
You have to understand it’s business, but this fiasco is pushing things a bit too far. Remember that when Bud and Co. try to celebrate you, “The Fan,” with some lame hoopla at the All-Star Break or something. Of course, since that game could be on the baseball network within the next decade, you won’t be able to watch it anyway.