Why won't sports leagues take fans' mobile money?

Why do sports leagues pretend that we're likely to drop our iPads and run to the stadium?

MLB At Bat app on Android tablet

What’s changed in major-league sports since the 1970s? The popularity of handlebar moustaches and chewing tobacco, and the advance of steroid science, to name a few things. But the biggest thing that comes to mind is the way fans can and do want to watch games. A huge part of that is the rise of smartphones, iPads, and wireless connections, but it often seems like sports leagues are doing their best to ignore that.

The best of the best, actually, is MLB At Bat, which arrived last week for the 2012 season on iOS and Android. Pay $15, and you can listen to live radio streams of any Major League Baseball game, see live statistics, and watch live-streaming video of one game each day, as selected by the league. Buy a full MLB.tv subscription, starting at $109 for the season or $19.99 per month, and you can watch spring training sessions and live video of any MLB game in the country. Except, that is, games that are occurring in the closest city with a Major League team, which is probably the team you follow, and the team you want to watch.

That’s due to a blackout rule, and nearly every major league sport has its version. Major League Baseball’s blackout rule is actually the most lenient, if also the most arcane. The National Football League is clear and often cruel, while the National Hockey League is, like the MLB, deferential to its broadcast partners. The National Baskeball Association blacks out games on its own NBA TV channel#NBAblackoutpolicy), though most cable subscribers can watch the games somewhere in their ample listings.

Most of these regulations were created before the idea of watching live video on something other than a television was just a Mission: Impossible gimmick. They’re designed to, first, encourage fans to attend live games, where teams can make the most money; second, insist that they watch a game on a local affiliate of an authorized broadcast partner, the next most lucrative system; and, third, if their team happens to be on the road or have a home base a decent distance away, to go ahead and watch on a specialty channel that is not at all cheap. Just as important is the nature of broadcast deals. Sports is one of the few remaining “event” moments, where advertisers can find a solid number of people all watching at the same time. Networks pay huge dollars to show sports events, and sports leagues sells multiple years, or even a decade, all at once.

All of which can feel rather frustrating to sports fans who have high-speed web connections, at home and on the road, and who actually want to pay a notable premium to watch their favorite team whenever they can. They’d likely even put up with locally sold commercials, if that’s what it takes to assuage network affiliates. But sports networks still want to pretend that someone--let’s say a guy with two young kids, finding some miraculous free time on a Sunday--would stand up and say, “Honey, I’m off to the corner bar for three hours,” or, “Baby, I think I’ll make a trek to Shea Stadium.” Myself, I would watch, respond to, and talk about the Buffalo Bills, the Buffalo Sabres, and maybe even the New York Knicks more if I knew I could open them on a second laptop monitor in lazier work hours, or on the Roku box in the living room, or on an iPad while killing time in a hotel.

So what will it take? Apple is pushing for more sensible streaming packages, which is a good sign, even if it likely means an Apple exclusive for a short time. Honestly, though, it might take the retirements and transitions of quite a few long-time network and sports leagues executives to get to the point where someone who knows the convenience of digital streaming finds themself in a position to start selling good content at a good price.

In other words, let’s all hope the next person to head up the broadcast team at the NFL is a serious Giants fan who has to live in New York for their job, and finds it as ridiculous as many of us do that he can’t watch his team.

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