Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

Will Twins (and Wolves and Wild) fans ever be able to truly cut the cord?

Given the remarkable march of progress in technology and the determination of sports fans to beat the system, cable providers and content producers should feel a special urgency.

Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes pitching to the Chicago White Sox in the first inning on Wednesday.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

If committed Twins fans had two wishes, the first would be a reboot of the 2016 season. Things right now are, you know, a little discouraging.

But the second wish, assuming committed fans are also on the cheap side, would be a subscription streaming option for the Twins and other local teams. Something like Netflix or HBO NOW, where for a set monthly fee you’d have access to all the Twins, Timberwolves and Wild games your masochistic heart desires. With that dream service you could finally, truly “cut the cord.”

You could free yourself from the big (insert epithet) cable or satellite company currently charging you hundreds of dollars a year for channels you watch only by accident (and behold in horror like an accident) for the joy of watching Byron Buxton match up against a major league curve ball.

Every month, the tech marketplace buzzes with new hardware or service purporting to make cord-­cutting a reality. In addition to hardware like Roku and AppleTV and Amazon Fire, Sony now has PlayStationVue available in the Twin Cities. For a minimum $30 a month you get 50 channels, access to local stations ​and cloud­-based storage for your DVR needs. I don’t have one, but the ​tech heads are generally delighted with Vue​, and looking forward to an inevitable expansion of service — with the exception of local pro sports. 

Article continues after advertisement

I kind of already knew the answer when I asked Twins President Dave St. Peter about the prospects for some kind of subscription-­delivered proprietary Twins channel. Having followed the team’s benighted fight to set up its own cable channel, Victory Sports One, a decade and a half ago, and tap a revenue stream like (if not anywhere equal to) the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, I knew the Twins weren’t eager to get back into that game.

“We are bound to an exclusive TV agreement with Fox Sports North,” said St.Peter. “They have exclusive rights to distribute our games to providers. That prohibits us from doing anything like you’re talking about.

“That said, Fox I think is well aware of the changing dynamics,” he said. “There’s a lot of distribution coming through different platforms. Like Sony’s service, which is now here.”

Then of course there is the issue of Major League Baseball itself. “MLB, through agreement among owners, has claim to all digital rights, which works out well, because it truly is equal revenue sharing,” said St. Peter. “So I don’t detect much interest in changing that at the moment anyway. The way it’s set up now works pretty well for everyone, not just the big market teams. And for anything to change it’d have to go up for vote with the owners.

MLB offers MLB.TV for about $130 a year. Which at $10 and change a month is not a bad price for obsessives. But, as every fan knows, it won’t allow you to watch your team if you’re located in that same market. That’s why they call it “geo­blocking.” Love the Twins? Got MLB.tv? Drive to Havre, Montana and you can watch them on your iPad, because the Twins are blacked out in Twinsland.

St. Peter wouldn’t get into the duration of contracts and leverage for future negotiations, saying the Twins are fine with the current arrangement with Fox. Moreover, he said the Twins have no research on the “what if” scenario, imagining the possible audience and revenue for a subscription service.

I asked him at what point does it become irresistible? The barroom conversations I’ve had with people already paying  for HBO NOW or Netflix quickly established a floor of $15 a month for Twins games, maybe less if they strike out 1,900 times this season. So $15 a month times 10,000, 100,000? 200,000?

Presidents of big league baseball clubs aren’t paid to speculate publicly on contract details, so St. Peter deferred. “We haven’t done any research on that. Because, as I said, we have a good relationship with Fox. And if something like you’re talking about ever happens, it’ll most likely go through them.”

“Well, we are streaming as I’m sure you know,” says Mike Dimond, President of Fox Sports North, referring to the app, Fox Sports Go, the company launched last year. “But it is an authenticated service requiring a subscription to a cable or satellite provider. So to your question, sure, we’re very cognizant of that discussion [about streaming]. It’s something that’s being talked about on a national level [at Fox headquarters.]”

Article continues after advertisement

As for usage of the app, Dimond says the feedback he’s getting tells him people like it. “It was a successful launch, I think. There were a few things that needed tweaking, and we’ve fixed them for the most part, so reports we get back are pretty favorable.” Dimond says he has no idea how many customers are picking it up off Wi­Fi as opposed to straight cell service. But that “roughly 50 percent are watching games on their phones.”)

The relationship between companies like FOX Sports and providers like Comcast, DirecTV, Dish and the rest has an umbilical quality. Fees providers pay to sports channels are essential to the former’s profitability, and the presence of sports channels mixed into programming tiers remains a bedrock business strategy for the providers, allowing them to bill even your sports agnostic grandmother $7 a month for ESPN in order to watch “Duck Dynasty” or whatever.

But as technology creates more and more options, and annoyance with providers and their gamed-­out pricing structure grows, what is also building, it seems, is the question of who exactly is providing the primary nourishment in this long­-standing relationship? Put another way, who needs who the most? The Comcasts and Dishes of the world? Or channels like FOX Sports North?

Is the partnership still equally vital to both as subscription streaming becomes more common? Who would prosper most if they parted ways? Or, at the very least, doesn’t the rapidly expanding universe of viewers familiar and comfortable with streaming provide FOX with valuable leverage in the next contract negotiation?

“Let’s just say, it’s a very big conversation within Fox,” says Dimond.

Given the remarkable march of progress in technology and the (obsessive) determination of some consumers to beat the system at a game that has been played to their disadvantage for a generation, large operators like Comcast, etc., channels like FOX Sports and “original content” producers like big league baseball teams probably should feel a special urgency.

One well known, only slightly complicated and moderately nefarious “work around” involves getting a subscription for a VPN (Virtual Private Network), something heretofore most appealing to security­-minded people who needed encrypted internet service. As MLB has been learning, subscribers to MLB.TV who also have a VPN can “disguise” their location and foil “geo­blocking” by making it appear as though they’re watching the Twins in Havre, Montana when in fact they’re still on the couch in Inver Grove Heights.

This of course … is wrong. Such chicanery violates MLB.TV’s terms and conditions. Perpetrators risk losing their service and paying a $100 early termination fee. Also, some buzzkill legal minds waggle fingers and declare the VPN workaround a violation of provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. (Which I’m sure you’ve all read.)

So, officially, do ​not try that at home, kids. But be aware that a lot of people know about it and that the VPN trick is just an example of the lengths devoted (cheap, anarchic) fans will go to watch their home team, without paying for 40 other channels of junk they’re embarrassed to have coming through their TVs.