Don’t Root For The Home Team: How Major League Baseball Pushes Away Local Fans
I grew up in Los Angeles, a Dodgers fan. Financial and geographic concerns kept my family and I from attending many games, but I have fond memories of falling asleep to Vin Scully’s bedtime stories on the radio. After “suffering” through World Series losses in 1977 and 1978, I celebrated when they finally beat the Yankees in 1981, and again when they defeated the A’s in 1988.
After moving south to San Diego for college, I stuck with the Dodgers for a while. But when I decided to remain there permanently, it made more sense to root for the team of my adopted hometown. I wanted to be a part of my community, and so I came to support the team that represented it.
As the years passed, my fandom grew. I began attending more games, and then writing about the Padres — first on the web in the late-’90s, then in the form of three books. I became something of an expert on the team. This sounds like bragging, and I suppose it is, but the larger point is that I fell in love with the Padres, much as I had fallen in love with San Diego. You don’t write books about MLB’s arguably least relevant franchise for the money, trust me.
My wife and I had a season mini-plan for a decade, watched 20–30 games a year in person, and most of the rest on TV. We enjoyed the ballpark, the players, and the narrative they created. Several times a year we drove the hour to Lake Elsinore so we could see the likes of Jake Peavy, Khalil Greene, and Chase Headley hone their tools in the minors before they came to San Diego (some were more successful as pros than others). The Padres were an important part of our world.
Then, after the 2011 season, the team’s longstanding cable deal expired. The Padres struck a new deal with a nascent channel. It was all very exciting, except for one small detail: The largest cable provider in town couldn’t reach an agreement with this channel, and the two sides spent all of 2012 and 2013 deadlocked, keeping many San Diegans from watching their home team. (Similar debacles have since occurred in Los Angeles and Houston.)
Unfortunately for the Padres, the cable TV blackout coincided with poor on-field performance and ongoing ownership turmoil. This trifecta of removing access to games, playing bad baseball, and trying to figure out who was in charge proved deadly. A team that had spent much of its existence being irrelevant in the eyes of many somehow managed to make itself even more so.
After the 2012 season, we evaluated our situation and decided to ditch cable altogether. We realized that we could stream everything we wanted to watch — it helps that we don’t follow other sports — via the Internet for a fraction of the cost (and without all the commercials).
We subscribed to MLB TV and fell in love with it. With the premium package, we could choose from any number of games on a given day, on multiple devices, overlaying the video feed with TV or radio announcers from either team, or just listening to the field microphones for a more immersive experience (I have received no compensation from Major League Baseball in exchange for the preceding description. I swear.)
The downside to MLB TV is that it has restrictions, chief among them a blackout of in-market games. Because we live less than ten miles from Petco Park, we fall in the Padres market, which means we can’t watch their games without implementing potentially illegal workarounds.
A safer workaround involved watching other teams. Living on the West Coast means that I usually can’t get home from work in time to see full games outside the Pacific Time Zone, so we had five options: the Angels, A’s, Dodgers, Giants, and Mariners. Still being a Padres fan, I rejected the Dodgers and Giants right away. They might win a game I was watching, and that would cause me physical pain.
We spent 2012 alternating between the three American League West teams in our time zone. We found that we enjoyed the A’s and Mariners most, and stuck with them the following season.
The last two years, we’ve migrated more fully to the A’s. We love the fans, with their signs and drums. And we love the players, even though their names change with a regularity that would alarm some folks not accustomed to high turnover (years of rooting for the Padres had prepared us well).
With the help of MLB, the cable TV industry, and arcane blackout restrictions, we have slowly moved from supporting the local team and local economy — admittedly, the $2,000 or so we spent a year on tickets, food, and merchandise isn’t much compared to what the Padres can make from selling luxury suites to corporations — to supporting a team in some other city that the decision-makers have determined it’s okay for us to watch in the comfort of our home.
Yes, the Padres are now available as part of most cable packages in San Diego, but why would we go back to cable? Why pay more for commercials and programming we don’t need? Until MLB and the cable TV industry adjust their practices to reflect current reality, we’ll continue to root, root, root for the nowhere-near-our-home team.
The worst part of this for the Padres is that we’re no longer angry about being unable to watch them. Although I still follow the team closely for professional reasons, we’ve adapted and moved on, embracing the A’s as we once embraced the local nine. We can’t be the only people who have found a solution to this problem that MLB created.
Yes, the 15 MLB teams with Fox TV deals were reportedly in talks to lift blackout restrictions for the upcoming season, so the Padres may soon be back on my list of viewing options. But even if reports are true, a mere half of the league is not good enough. If the powers-that-be want fans to support local teams, they must make it easier to do so. Otherwise, said fans and local teams don’t win, and that’s a shame.
Geoff Young is a baseball writer who may ask to hang out at your house sometimes if you have cable. You should follow him on Twitter.
Originally published at crookedscoreboard.com on January 8, 2016.