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December 20, 2014

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COMMENTARY:

Major League Baseball: As not seen on TV

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John Froschauer / Associated Press

San Francisco pitcher Randy Johnson tips his hat to the crowd as he leaves the Giants’ game against the Seattle Mariners last Friday. The Giants, whose TV market includes Las Vegas, would go on to lose 1-2.

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As recently as last winter, hope emerged that Major League Baseball would finally lift its archaic territory maps, which deny Las Vegas fans of three Western teams televised action of most of their games.

In December, MLB executive Bob DuPuy told the Review-Journal: “You can tell the fans in Las Vegas that the commissioner is committed to getting as many games cleared as possible.”

But, if so, they still won’t be televised as part of viewers’ season packages anytime soon.

The Biz of Baseball, an industry blog on the sport, reported last week that baseball again tabled a new territory policy at its quarterly meeting, potentially preventing fans of the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics and Arizona Diamondbacks from seeing their teams regularly next season. An MLB spokesman clarifies that the matter has not been shelved and is ongoing.

“The situation is Las Vegas is the most egregious,” Biz of Baseball founder Maury Brown told me.

Yet the slogan for MLB’s Extra Innings package, available on Cox Cable or satellite for $199, remains: “Every game is a home game. Watch your favorite team no matter where you live.”

I’m not a fan of any of the affected teams. I’m a New York Mets fan, so I can watch my team here.

Lucky me.

In the top of the 11th inning in an 11-inning loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, the Mutts’ sometime right fielder, Ryan Church, inexplicably forgot to touch third base when running home. Maddening, indeed, but at least I got to see the reincarnation of original Met Marv Throneberry on live TV because, thankfully, most Dodgers games are cablecast locally.

Throneberry, according to legend, missed second base on a triple. When the Mets’ manager began disputing the umpire’s call, the first-base coach told him not to bother: Hapless Marv had missed first, too.

I know this tale because Vin Scully relayed it to me on the next night’s live telecast.

Sun columnist Ron Kantowski, whom I’m pinch-hitting for today, is also lucky. And he’s a Chicago Cubs fan. WGN, which televises dozens of Cubs games annually, is a local cable channel in Las Vegas.

But Ron’s editor, Mark Whittington, is a Giants and A’s fan. Not only does he support a Giants team historically more futile than the Mets — and approaching the perennial ineptness of the Cubs — he can’t witness their misery.

Maybe Mark is the lucky one.

Most Giants and A’s games are blacked out in Las Vegas because they claim the valley as a local market. This means, counterintuitively, that the majority of their games aren’t televised here.

So when the Mets play the Giants, if it’s not a national telecast on ESPN or Fox, my options are satellite radio, Internet gamecasts or (perish the thought) the next morning’s box score.

Baseball’s territory policy dates to the early days of sports broadcasting. Televising baseball games, team owners believed, could hurt the “local” teams’ gate purses.

When I visit family north of the Bay, Giants and Athletics games aren’t blacked out. But they are in Las Vegas — about 565 miles from San Francisco’s China Basin, home of AT&T Park. That’s a nearly nine-hour commute. Dismal Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is a mere 550 miles away.

The Dodgers, Angels and Padres also call Las Vegas their own, but at least we get some of their local broadcasts — an allowance that contradicts baseball’s logic: It’s half the distance to Los Angeles, Anaheim or San Diego than to San Francisco and Oakland.

Steve Schorr, Cox’s vice president of public and government affairs, describes the TV policy as nonsensical — a view he’s expressed to MLB officials “numerous times.”

Brown explained that team owners, nervous over the recession, “are scratching for every penny that they can get” — especially from advertisers. Owners fret that reducing the size of their television territories (even markets they don’t televise in) could hurt their draw to advertisers.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” said MLB spokesman Pat Courtney. “There’s still more work to be done” on a revised TV territory policy.

Brown believes MLB can’t keep the status quo forever: Once live games are available on mobile phones, if Giants fans watching the game in their cars enter the Las Vegas TV market, thus crossing an imaginary territory line, what happens? “Do I lose the game I’m watching?” Brown asked.

Major League Baseball drove away casual fans over the 1994 strike, lost credibility by overlooking the explosion of performance-enhancement drugs and often threatens relocation if communities refuse to spend taxpayer dollars to help billionaires build ballparks.

And baseball officials — most likely, team executives ­— continually underestimate the most obvious platform to boost interest in their sport: television.

How counterintuitive. How typically baseball.

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