It won’t be much longer now.  With pitchers and catchers about to report, we’re only a few weeks away from baseball season.  And as happy as I am to have the game back, I know the common frustrations that accompany every baseball season are on their way back too.

Specifically, I know I have several Saturdays worth of frustration to look forward to.  Why?  Because FOX is trying to murder Saturday baseball.

Unless you’re a Cubs fan living in Chicago or nearby, or you’re willing to watch whichever game FOX thinks you ought to care about each week, you know what I’m talking about.

As part of FOX’s deal with the MLB, they have an exclusive broadcast window every Saturday from 12:10-7pm CT.  That’s why the most Saturday Cubs games–at least, the ones not broadcast by FOX–start at 12:05pm.  In fact, the Cubs are one of the few teams that routinely try to start their games ahead of the blackout schedule.  Most other teams regularly start their Saturday games in the evening.*  FOX’s blackout window cuts a wide swath through the heart of the weekend, creating a vacuum for viewers on one of the few days they can watch their teams.

*The plethora of day games on Sunday is likewise the result of ESPN’s own blackout window, which starts at 4pm CT.  You can see the blackout policy spelled out in detail here.

The problems really start when FOX decides to fill that vacuum with their regional scheduling.  Instead of covering one game–like ESPN does on Sunday nights–and forcing the rest of the teams to schedule around them, FOX grabs two or three or even four of the best match-ups from the schedule and shows you only the team or teams from your part of the country.**

**Here’s the archaic map they use to arbitrarily determine which teams you’ll get to see.  Hello, Montana–you’ll get the Mariners and like it!

That means on a Saturday FOX picks up the Cubs game, unless you live in the Chicago area, or in the area near the Cubs’ opponent, you’re not going to see the game.  Since I live in LA, the chances I’ll see the Cubs play on FOX are very slim.  In fact, even when they’re the first game of a FOX national doubleheader, me and the rest of the LA audience don’t get to see the game–we get syndicated cartoons instead.

Try to follow the “logic” of FOX and the MLB here:  instead of letting baseball fans watch the game they want to see, or even giving them the option to watch the game of their choice on either the local FOX Sports network or FX, they presume baseball fans will just be happy to watch whatever game they’re shown.  Like I’m going to watch three hours worth of Angels or Dodgers baseball just because they’re the teams I live closest too.  Or that I want to watch an entire four or five hour contest between the Yankees and Red Sox because that’s what they’ve deemed to be the game of the week.  At most you’ll get a couple innings out of me–I’m far more likely to plant myself on the couch and watch hours of baseball if I’m able to see my team.

So instead of force-feeding baseball fans one or two games every week, why not give us a choice?  Keep the regional action on the local FOX network if you must, but show the alternate game on FOX Sports or FX.  No doubt more baseball fans would watch every Saturday if they were going to get to see their team play.  I can’t imagine they’re really getting more viewers over on FX with the umpteenth showing of Fantastic 4: Rise of the Sliver Surfer.

It’s like FOX is working off a model designed long before cable and satellite TV.  Today you have hundreds of channels to choose from.  And if you can’t find anything on live TV, you can consult your DVR or watch a DVD.  Or find something on Netflix or Hulu.  Or fire up the Xbox and play some Halo or Modern Warfare.  There are simply too many other options available to expect me to invest a bunch of time in a game I don’t care about.

The biggest problem is that there is no way to circumvent the blackout.  Not the expensive MLB Extra Innings subscription on DIRECTV.  Not the equally pricey MLB.TV subscription.  Nothing gets you past the blackout.  You might be alright if you have an ESPN Zone in your area, or a quality sports bar, but even those options are dwindling.  Most places simply won’t pay the exorbitant fees to show the blacked out games.***  It’s not worth the one or two customers they might draw to make sure they can broadcast ever Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians game.

***One example:  There’s a local Claim Jumper Jedi and I used to frequent during football season because they carried all the games.  They dropped their NFL Sunday Ticket subscription this season because DIRECTV wanted them to pay a separate fee for each of their ten screens.  Needless to say they had a significantly smaller Sunday crowd this season.  There’s no reason to go out to a restaurant or sports bar if they don’t have any more games available than I have at home.

In fact, my only access to a blacked out Cubs game is to listen to the game on my MLB.com Gameday Audio subscription.  Since they don’t blackout any games, and since the Cubs’ abundance of weekly day games means I’m listening to a large percentage of the season while I’m still at work, the Gameday Audio subscription might be the best $15 I spend all year.

But that I’m eager to listen to the game online instead of watch whatever game FOX is airing illustrates the problem they’ve created for many baseball fans.  Shutting me out from watching my team is not the way to get me to watch your network.  Look at the declining number of people who actually watch baseball for all the proof you need.  Even the audiences for the playoffs and the World Series are shrinking.  And I really do think FOX’s Saturday policies are at least partially to blame.  People are getting out of the habit of watching baseball on TV–the way to get more of them to tune in is not to cut them off from their teams.

It’s high time for FOX and the MLB to dump their antiquated blackout rules and give us baseball fans the option to see our teams on one of the few days we’re able to watch them play.  Common sense should not be too much to ask.

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