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MLB

A Shitty Regional Sports Network Is Destroying My Enthusiasm For Baseball

Washington Nationals players lean over the dugout railing during a game against the Boston Red Sox.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty

Television ratings for local broadcasts of the Washington Nationals are down from a year ago, despite the Nationals having won the World Series at the end of last season. I do not care about the television ratings of a baseball team, except that I am one of the local people not watching Nationals games, and so I have some insight into the situation. My recommendation for the regional sports network carrying Nationals games is as follows: Simply make it not a complicated and outrageously expensive trial to watch Nationals games.

The Nationals are broadcast locally by MASN, a regional sports network they co-own with the Baltimore Orioles. MLB forced the Nationals into this arrangement back in 2005, as a condition of their move from Montreal to Washington, D.C., and granted an aggrieved Peter Angelos a 77 percent equity stake in the resulting network, leaving the only half-competent baseball organization in the region locked in with the remaining 23 percent. In a pattern that anyone who has closely followed the Orioles over the last several decades will instantly recognize, MASN has always and only been a slipshod, half-assed operation. The production values of their broadcasts are poor. The pre- and post-game shows have been the bad kind of quaint: flustered and homer-y and with a certain Pepperidge Farm-esque folksiness. MASN has also spent most of its existence locked away in expensive cable add-on packages, and in 2018 the network yanked the last of its games off of local broadcast affiliates and secured them behind cable paywalls. The experience of watching the Nationals and Orioles on television in their home markets is both expensive and poor.

Nevertheless, because MASN is the only provider of televised Nationals games inside the team’s broadcast area, I am willing to endure the inferior product, like a chump, in order to watch my home team. But there’s a problem: While I live within the team’s broadcast zone, I do not live in the portion of that broadcast zone that is reachable by cable television providers. For people for whom cable is not available, the options have been limited to expensive satellite TV providers with even more expensive sports bundles added on. Over-the-top streaming has not been an option, because MLB (always several steps behind everyone else) only freed its franchises up to pursue local streaming rights in December 2019. Theoretically this should not have stopped MASN from offering authenticated streams of Nationals games on, say, the network’s deeply shitty website, but because MASN is a gigantic pile of crap, evidently no one got around to making that a thing.

For a number of reasons having to do with the location of my home and a series of discouraging experiences with satellite TV providers, the television deal that makes the most sense for me is a relatively cheap OTT streaming service. A consequence of this is that there was a period of several years where I had to leave my home and go elsewhere if I wanted to watch the Nationals on television, which is not all that reasonable a solution for people whose homes are in far-flung places beyond even the reach of world-devouring telecom companies. It’s one thing to travel 15 miles to watch the Big Fight, something else entirely to travel 15 miles to watch a midsummer afternoon rubber-match against the Miami Marlins.

Fans in my position were encouraged, therefore, to learn during the winter break following Washington’s World Series victory that MASN finally worked out a deal to provide streams of its games for viewers inside the broadcast area. Even during this surreal, mostly bogus truncated season, the ability to just turn on an afternoon rubber-match against the Miami Marlins and have it be the day’s background noise would’ve been an enormous comfort, and even with the Nationals playing hungover, shitty baseball, I was very excited. That is, until I learned that the service with exclusive streaming rights to MASN broadcasts is something called AT&T TV NOW, and that MASN and other RSNs are part of a premium AT&T TV NOW bundle that costs an insane, completely out-of-the-question $80 per month. Whoever this deal is meant to serve, it is incredibly, immediately useless to a person in my position.

Sympathetic tech knowers across the web have suggested certain end-around solutions to the particular problem facing those cable-cutting Nationals fans who live inside the team’s broadcast radius. These mostly involve circumventing MLB TV’s blackout restrictions with a VPN, or hunting down pirated streams. First of all, these solutions do not address themselves to the exact problem, which is that it is annoyingly difficult to watch the Nationals on a television, from a living room sofa. Second of all, even if using a VPN to mask your location in order to avoid an MLB TV blackout so that you can watch your local team play regular-season baseball games on your crappy laptop doesn’t seem like a ton of work to you, it is a stupid and infuriating amount of work to put into watching your local team play regular-season baseball games on your crappy laptop. 

It should be easy and super cheap to watch the reigning World Series champs on television, especially when you live within their broadcast area. This does not feel like a controversial take. Younger readers may not believe this, but there was a time when you could watch your local team, even if that team was the worthless Baltimore Orioles, on your television, every time they played, for free. I am told that, yes, I am being told that the advance of technology—and I just want to make sure I’m getting this right, hold please—yes I am being told that the advance of technology has been a boon for consumers, a category which I am afraid in this case includes you and me. So therefore I would like to ask, in the grouchiest possible tone of voice, why it is so goddamn complicated for me to watch my goddamn home team on goddamn television in the 20th goddamn year of the 21st century. Technology has made it possible for me to carry a television around in my hip pocket, but somehow it is harder to watch the local baseball team play baseball games than it was at the turn of the century. How can that be?

This is a question I intended to ask people who work at MASN, but efforts to make contact have so far been unsuccessful. RSNs have already made baseball into a hyper-local sport; the next frontier, I suppose, is RSNs making baseball into a mysterious niche sport. I have never cared less about my local baseball team than I do right now. I have watched Juan Soto take roughly 10 times as many postseason at-bats as I have regular-season ones; with the Nats likely to miss the playoffs this year and COVID trapping me inside my home, I will have gone an entire calendar year without seeing a single minute of Nationals baseball. And I’m a fan! I would like to follow the team! Seems like the people in charge of making that possible have instead chosen to make it a chore.