Teams Have No Obligation to make Games Available on Television

The headline on this piece sounds almost cruel to long suffering sports fans in Houston who became used be being able to watch the Rockets and Astros on television every game they played.  Since the demise of the contract with Fox Sports Net and the creation of Comcast Sports Net Houston both teams have been almost invisible to the large majority of their fans in the city and region.  In the case of the Astros that includes the whole state and parts of four others.

When news of the latest court wranglings over the CSN-H bankruptcy or David Barron’s most recent quotes from other carriers who don’t seem interested in adding CSN-H to their roster comes, letters from fans saying it is they who are being robbed of the games.

While that is technically true, fans did get quite used to being able to flip a switch when either the Rockets or Astros were playing and watch the games in the comfort of their own homes, there is no inherit right to have that option.

There is no rule or law that says any team has to provide its product for free.  Actually fewer and fewer teams are.  Dying are the days when games were aired on television stations that only an electric outlet and an antenna were needed to watch.  The Astros have not had a game on what was called “free over-the-air” television since at least 2011.  The same is true with the Rockets.  All games are carried on networks available only with a cable or satellite connection.  In other words all of them are on channels the viewers have to pay for to watch.  The Texas Rangers baseball team still offers some games on an “over-the-air” outlet on Fridays.  All the rest of the telecasts are on Fox Sports Southwest.

The Chicago Cubs will soon be leaving WGN-TV in Chicago and before that will disappear from national distribution as well.

Games that were once on “free” TV–the NBA playoffs have been the best example lately–are now strictly on “pay distribution” networks.   Its not going to change.

Baseball clubs started making their games become available on radio when it was determined the exposure and free advertising (as well as the actual advertising sold within the broadcasts) was well more valuable that the few fans that might not come to the ball park and stay at home.   Television learned the same lesson.  When “pay distribution” options started, the practice of most teams was to televise only or mostly road games which would have no effect on keeping potential paying customers at home.  Pay distribution allowed teams to start televising home games with little risk because fans would have to pay for the right to see those games, the distributors would have to pay the ball clubs and, in the beginning, few had subscriptions to cable television anyway.

All of a sudden the revenue projections shifted when more and more people started subscribing to cable or later satellite television and the rights fees demanded by the teams could be increased.  It now made more sense to take games off “over-the-air” because those stations could not afford to keep up.  The wealthier network affiliated stations had little space to carry non network sports and the independents could not afford the rights fees teams were demanding.  There was no subscriber fee for the “over-the-air” guys to generate most of the revenue.

While all this was going on the fan was the winner as long as he could afford a cable or satellite service.  More and more games were being put on television in one form or another.  Pretty soon fans could have access to every game played.  It was great to be a fan.

However, the costs of doing business have risen to some feel may be unsustainable levels in the future.  There is only so much cable and satellite companies can keep doing in raising rates.  Already there are too many channels that few people ever watch or who have niche audiences. Many of those channels don’t cost the service provider any significant money.  Some even pay for distribution.  Sports is not in the class.  Yet sports fans don’t rule the population.

As much as sports has grown.  As much as television ratings for the Super Bowl amaze.  As much as men may gather in sports bars or listen to sports talk shows on the radio, the sports fan is still in the minority of the American public.  There are still a considerably larger number of Americans who don’t care about sports than do.  And there is even a larger number that are semi-knowledgeable.  They know the NBA playoffs are on any may even know who is playing, but don’t likely know much if anything about any of the players. They won’t watch any of the games.  They know its baseball season and may take the family to a game as a regular summer outing, but don’t really follow the team and rarely, if ever, watch on TV or listen on radio.  There are a lot of those.  

Those non or semi sports fans are a problem for the folks who have to set rates and prices for contracts to air a team’s games.  They can’t raise the monthly rate for everyone without upsetting those who don’t care.  Yet, the dollars demanded by the teams continues to rise.  They claim it is necessary to compete.  Whether they are right or not, the fact that the price would be partially subsidized by those who don’t care anything about the team or sports in general is the problem.  This is hardly a matter of local importance like building a bridge might be.  Taxes from everyone, even those who live on the far side of town, who might likely never cross that bridge, all pay for the construction of that bridge.  Government, however, is not a private company.  Sports teams are private property.

The only correct method of making money from of pay distribution TV would be making sports channels separate pay systems much like HBO, Showtime and Starzz.  Fans who wanted the channel would pay ten to fifteen dollars a month.  Others who didn’t follow sports would pay nothing.  That is the correct solution.  I’d pay and so would a lot of others.  But would we be enough?  No one wants to take that chance especially while other teams already have great deals that pay them a lot of money with all viewers to the system footing the bill.   Unless sports fans could be signed to five year contracts the concern that defections would increase when the team went bad would hurt the revenue stream.

There is no perfect answer to getting the Astros and Rockets…and in Los Angeles, the Dodgers and Lakers on more homes than they are now.  All the teams involved want more exposure, just don’t kid yourself in thinking it is for the fans.  It is only indirectly for the fans.  The teams want the exposure because contracts with other carriers equal big revenue.

The teams don’t have an obligation to make the games available to fans.  But they have to try to bring in those dollars which rule sports on both the collegiate and professional levels like no time in history.

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About gregclucas

Author, "Baseball-Its More Than a Game" available through Amazon.com, BN.com or by order. Veteran sportscaster with extensive play by play experience in MLB, NBA and college sports.
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One Response to Teams Have No Obligation to make Games Available on Television

  1. James Schee says:

    Interesting, I had not heard that the Cubs would be leaving WGN. I wonder what that means for Deshaies and company? So weird, with them leaving and the Braves rarely on TBS, to see how baseball tv market has changed in recent years.

    I still remember flipping channels long, long ago and discovering HSE (Houston Sport Entertainment) and that they were going to put the Astros games on. Living over 100 miles away this was amazing event, as my family when I was a kid could only make a handful of games. And over the air broadcast games were rare, rare events. We became much better fans of the team, since they were sort of in our house most nights of the week, only exceptions over the years was if Seinfeld was on.

    With recent years and CSN not being available, it has become harder to be a fan. Though given the teams struggles I sort of look at is as a blessing to NOT having seen so much of the mess the team was.

    Things are picking up now though, as the team has improved and look like they might acutally be building something. I wonder if the future might not be on tv at all, but things like the online mlb network, that allows people to subscribe to it online with the $ going directly to MLB.

    Though they will have to eliminate the silly blackout rules that seem arbitrary. I had a friend who offered me his password to use to try it out, and if I liked it he and I had planned to split costs. But despite being over 100 miles away from Houston and there was no way to get the CSN station with no Comcast co in area. I was blacked out.

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