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

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

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. 

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.]”

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.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 04/15/2016 - 02:11 pm.

    Tough to change such an institution

    According to the Shales and Miller oral history of ESPN, they figured out 30+ years ago that cable subscriber fees were their cash cow. Cord cutters have made a dent in their revenue that’s caused them to cut high-priced talent like Bill Simmons and Keith Olbermann, but they still have a strong hold. It’s become especially brazen now that there are no over-the-air games for any non-Vikings MN team. In the past, at least one could see a Wolves or Wild game for free every other week or a Twins game on Sunday.

    I mostly feel bad for those outside the metro who have little choice but to subscribe. It’s not hard to cut the cord and replace it with going to some games at the ballpark/arena, but that’s not really a viable option for most.

    Along with MLB’s glaring streaming flaw, the NBA’s streaming options have been terrible for years. Eventually, they’re going to have to adapt or steadily lose $ from fans for TV. Even adults who are big sports fans don’t need to see every game.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/15/2016 - 03:04 pm.

    Not sure

    …how much more of Byron Buxton trying to deal with major league curve balls I can stand.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/15/2016 - 03:08 pm.

    The future

    Put another way, who needs who the most? The Comcasts and Dishes of the world? Or channels like FOX Sports North?

    Some fascinating questions. The sports teams worked very hard to persuade the cable companies to make their networks part of a basic service. That reflects an understanding on their part that if they made their networks a separate service that the subscriber would have to opt in for, they would not be successful. I guess that’s one of the things the Twins learned with their Victory sports service venture. So they are not unhappy where they are. The longer term problem is that the subscription model, with which the sports networks are ok with now, is itself under pressure. If cord cutting truly catches on, in order to compete, the cable companies might very well have to refashion their subscription packages generally and they may do that in a way that works to the disadvantage of the Twins network, and also the Big Ten network. It’s my opinion that the only sport that has a chance of succeeding with that model is NFL football.

  4. Submitted by Jennifer Schulz on 04/16/2016 - 04:16 pm.

    Too good to be true?

    SlingTV just announced a new package that includes Fox Sports. $20 per month.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/17/2016 - 11:27 am.

      Fox

      On their website, Sling says they will have Fox and regional sports channels which could mean the Twins. If it does that would make Sling a much more interesting choice.

    • Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/18/2016 - 08:14 am.

      I can confirm that Sling does include Fox Sports North in this region in their new “beta multi-stream” package for $20/month. Best as I can tell, it should give you Fox Sports North if you are anywhere in the Twins MLB.TV blackout region (you might get other regional Fox Sports networks too if their regions overlap). Free 1 week trial too so you can confirm before you buy.

      • Submitted by Chris Thompson on 04/18/2016 - 10:36 am.

        Watched the game this weekend through sling

        I signed up for the Sling beta multi-stream package this weekend and watched the game against the Angels on Sunday from a Twin Cities suburb. For $20/month my family decided it was worth it to be able to watch the Twins.

        Love the app so far. I even watched part of the game via an ipad on my patio.

        Saturday’s Wild game did show up in the on-screen guide in the app, but the screen was black and a “this program is subject to blackout restrictions” message showed up when I tried to watch it through the Sling app via a Roku box.

        • Submitted by Chris Thompson on 04/19/2016 - 01:04 pm.

          Watched the Wild playoff game, too

          Replying to my own comment … But I was able to watch the Wild playoff game on 4/18 through the Sling beta app, which was on FSN North, and the Twins game which was on an alternative FSN channel in the app. So far, extremely happy with it for $20/month. My wife enjoys the Food Network, HGTV and other channels that come with it too.

  5. Submitted by Max Hammer on 04/16/2016 - 04:41 pm.

    Minnesota United

    It’s throwback, in a very pleasant way, when Minnesota United games are on channel 29 over the summer. Who knows what’ll happen when they join MLS next year, but I’d love to see them figure out a way to stay on over-the-air TV in a privately-financed stadium.

  6. Submitted by Jason Jungbluth on 04/17/2016 - 01:15 pm.

    Vue

    I’m confused. When I did a free trial of vue FSN Was on the guide. Recorded games with ease. I’ll check back the next move I make, and if they’re still there then I’m cutting the cord for good.

    • Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/18/2016 - 08:03 am.

      Yeah, Vue has Fox Sports North, so I am not sure why this article is implying otherwise. (Vue has apparently had some contractual issues getting the various regional Fox Sports channels up, but plenty of users are reporting they get them just fine. Obviously do the one week free trial first to confirm.)

  7. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/18/2016 - 08:08 am.

    Update article for FSN on Vue and Sling

    Brian, you might want to update this article — Fox Sports North is now included on Vue (at least on the $35/month “Core Slim” package or higher in Minneapolis) and also on Sling (with their new “multi-stream beta” package for $20/month). The latter’s price point would seem to be particularly attractive to cord-cutting local sports fans.

  8. Submitted by Matt Brillhart on 04/18/2016 - 03:55 pm.

    About that Fox Sports GO App….

    So for those that DO have a cable or satellite subscription (or a close family member to supply a log-in), the Fox Sports GO app can be used to watch live programming on one’s phone, tablet, away from home via the app.

    HOWEVER(!) – not all cable/satellite providers participate in the program, as they won’t allow Fox Sports to stream content. Comcast, the 800-lb gorilla in this game, does not allow their subscribers to watch live content thru Fox Sports GO. I have heard that the two satellite providers, DirecTV and Dish, do allow you to watch live content thru the app.

    Is there a list anywhere of participating providers that allow you to watch live Twins games thru Fox Sports Go?? It would be really great if my dad (who has cable at home) could watch the Twins (via Fox Sports GO on my Amazon Fire TV) when he’s over at my house (or when he’s there in spirit WINK WINK)

  9. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 04/19/2016 - 10:23 pm.

    Broadcast TV

    I know there is no chance of this happening, but I wish that you could see some Twins games on broadcast TV. Since the teams always want public subsides to build their stadiums there should be the requirement that they offer a certain number of games on a broadcast channel. I am not going to hold my breath. I wonder how long it will be before the games disappear from broadcast radio and are only available via satellite radio.

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