For Braves fans caught in cable dispute, can’t blackout be lifted? Sorry, but no

In light of the carriage dispute between Bally Sports and Comcast – which has left tons of Braves fans unable to watch their team’s games on Comcast – many viewers had a question.

Why can’t MLB simply remove the blackout restriction for the affected fans in the many major markets?

Bally Sports and Comcast still could come to an agreement. This isn’t the first carriage dispute in history. But before the dispute, Comcast accounted for almost one-quarter of homes in the Braves’ home television territory, so there are many affected Braves fans.

No doubt, it would be nice for every Braves fan to be able to watch the team’s games. But the issue is not as simple as MLB deciding to do away with blackouts in this instance.

MLB would be in legal violation of the agreement between the Braves and Bally Sports – an agreement that includes blackout protections for Bally Sports. If MLB were to lift the blackout restriction, it would be in breach of that contract, which would cause a lawsuit.

We’ll explain how this works.

Every MLB team has a defined home television territory. In the Braves’ case, theirs covers six states: Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and around half of North Carolina. An estimated 35 million people – in 14.5-15 million homes – live in the Braves’ territory.

The Braves are able to license their broadcasting rights for that territory to whichever company they choose. In this case, Diamond Sports – the parent company of Bally Sports – owns the Braves’ broadcast rights. Thus, Bally Sports South and Bally Sports Southeast have exclusive rights to broadcast all Braves games to everyone in the Braves’ home television territory. (This does not include the games designated for national television, like ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.)

Bally Sports then sells its channels, and broadcasts, to distributors, like Comcast. There are linear and virtual distributors. Comcast is defined as linear, whereas YouTube TV would be virtual. In other words: cable and streaming. The top three linear distributors, in no order, are Comcast, DirecTV and Charter.

Blackouts exist to protect regional sports networks and their distributors. In these agreements, nobody but the distributors can air these games.

MLB cannot come in and remove the blackout restriction – not even for MLB.TV. If MLB were to do this, it would be violating an agreement between the Braves, Bally Sports and the distributors, which likely would result in a lawsuit.

But MLB also would be adding more competition with the marketplace, and thus technically would be competing with the Braves, who sold their broadcast rights to Bally Sports. MLB would not compete with one of its own entities – not to mention, again, the legal implications of breaching the agreement.

When Bally Sports tries to sell its product to distributors, some (Comcast) believe it provides enough value to their customers to justify the cost. Others (YouTube TV) don’t think the cost is worth having the channels and games on their platform. And traditionally, regional sports networks are among the most expensive channels for distributors because the regional sports networks charge a lot to make back the hefty rights fees they paid a team.

In the carriage dispute between Bally Sports and Comcast, both sides have their arguments.

Bally Sports’ leverage might come from the fact that Comcast’s customers who are Braves fans could cancel with Comcast. But Bally Sports’ bankruptcy case might provide complications. Bally Sports could have extra pressure to strike a deal with Comcast because it would strengthen their portfolio when they sit in front of a judge at a bankruptcy hearing and try to prove they can emerge from bankruptcy in an adequate state.

And another note: MLB holds the streaming rights to Braves games, so Bally Sports cannot stream games to people in the team’s territory.

Within MLB, there’s been discussion about the future of broadcasts. Are blackouts necessary? What’s the best path forward for all of this?

One main question is this: How does MLB create the maximum amount of competition in the marketplace for its product while still providing as many opportunities as possible for fans to watch those games?

Those two objectives are at odds, which is the difficult part in all of this.

But that’s a long-term look.

For now, Braves fans who are Comcast customers must hope this carriage dispute doesn’t last long.