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Baseball almost there on fan viewing options

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Major League Baseball is introducing team-only options for online viewing.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Rights and restrictions when it come to watching your favorite sports team aren't a lot of fun. There's always cable, of course, but if you don't choose a cable option that includes broadcasts or if you choose not to have cable, as a fan you can take other routes. For me, living overseas and in Boston for the last eight years, that's meant purchasing MLB.tv.

MLB.tv has been the perfect solution for me. Living overseas means there are no blackout restrictions, and living in Boston led to zero issues. This stands in opposition to the NFL's single-team package, which makes it almost impossible to follow your favorite team during a good season - even internationally. By contrast, baseball's online streaming option has been a breeze.

But for in-market fans, it hasn't been as easy. Our friend Mike Bates, for example, lives in Iowa. He doesn't have cable but purchases MLB.tv to follow the Twins. Being in-market made him eligible for blackouts (not just for the Twins, but for the Brewers, White Sox, Cubs, Royals, and Cardinals), and as a result 33.7% of those games were blacked out in 2015. That's a sizeable and unacceptable chunk of games to miss, considering it's a fan dishing money out of his or her wallet.

When a customer voluntarily chooses to pay money, the least that the organization taking the money can do is to make sure those fans are getting what they pay for. Blacking out a third of a fan's in-market games is the equivalent of Major League Baseball turning its back on its biggest supporters.

Fans brought forward a lawsuit against baseball to solve this problem. How bizarre is it that baseball needed to have a lawsuit brought to them by the very people that make their world possible, in order to give those people the product they want to pay for? At any rate, Major League Baseball - along with Comcast and DirecTV - have settled the issue for the time being.

Starting in 2016, baseball is taking steps in the right direction. On Tuesday it was announced that baseball would be giving MLB.tv subscribers different options when signing up to the service.

What does all this mean - exactly - for fan viewing options?

First, it means that you can still purchase the regular MLB.tv package which has always been available. For people like me, nothing changes. Except that perhaps my yearly subscription price goes down a little bit, as the basic package will be $109.99 this year.

Second, there is a "Follow Your Team" package option. This option is actually more expensive than buying the entire MLB package, costing $119.99, but it allows out-of-market fans to watch their team play in-market teams. So if you're a Twins fan living in Boston, my "Follow the Twins" package would still allow me to watch Minnesota's series in Beantown even though I'm in the Boston market. It does, however, require you to have a pay television subscription to the regional sports channel.

The third package will cost $84.99, and will be available to cable subscribers who want to watch home team games when they're away from the television. This means you can watch on your phone from work, on your tablet from work, or from your computer at work. Or not at work. You get it.

If you've read all of that and thought to yourself "Actually, that doesn't really solve a lot of the issues here," you're absolutely right. All three plans have drawbacks. The traditional, full MLB package is still subject to blackouts. The "Follow Your Team" option doesn't do much of anything to help people like Mike in Iowa, where most of those six teams will play each other a number of times per year - and fans still are forced into being local cable subscribers to get around blackout restrictions. And the third package hardly seems useful to baseball fans at all; even if a fan leaves his or her market a great deal, or if he or she lives out of market, a subscriber still would need to pay twice - once for the regional cable network and once for the MLB.tv subscription. That almost makes the MLB.tv subscription superfluous, except for when he or she is out of the house.

As much as these new options are a move in the right direction, they still don't address fans' biggest complaints about access to their favorite team(s). These choices still require fans to pay twice (once for the online streaming option, and once for the regional sports network), and they still don't address how Twins fans in Iowa will have access to the 42 combined games versus the White Sox, Royals, and Brewers.

When you read lawyers talking about this settlement being "a big win" for fans, it really isn't. The win for fans is a simple and elegant option, where fans are allowed to watch what they pay for. It should be that easy. This isn't it.

Why can't baseball just make this easy?

Major League Baseball suffers from issues just like any other large organization. The development of new technology and new delivery systems can outpace the organization's entrenched business model, and that's at the heart of this issue.

Baseball has given a great deal in rights and guarantees to networks who broadcast their games, and in turn those networks are paying mega bucks into the game's coffers. Looking at the Los Angeles Dodgers as the most audacious example, they signed a 25-year, $8.35 billion contract with Time Warner Cable. With money like that on the table, of course TWC is going to do everything they can to guarantee a return on investment, and that means they'll hold onto all the rights they're given - including the enforcement of blackouts to maintain their control over a game's broadcast.

As a result, MLB finds themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, between a source of significant revenue and giving the fans what they want and what they pay for.

Baseball fans who pay for MLB.tv are doing so because they're out of market, sure, but they're also doing so because the television viewing habits of the world are changing. People don't want to pay large fees for cable when all they want to watch is Big Bang Theory and Making a Murderer.

So people subscribe to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, and pay for internet and a streaming service instead of an overpriced bundle from Comcast. That's the way fans of the game want this to go as well: "We can't justify paying for cable, but we can justify for paying for something we'll watch all the time, like baseball."

On some front, Major League Baseball no doubt understands that this is their ultimate destination. It's where they need to end up if they want to avoid alienating money-paying fans. To be fair, they probably didn't see such a drastic shift in viewing habits coming so quickly - if they did, I'm not sure how they'd commit themselves to that 25-year deal with Time Warner Cable. Their challenge over the next few years will be how the game goes from where they are now (with improved-but-requires-improvement MLB.tv subscription options) to a place where fans can choose what they want to watch, pay for it, and see it.

We all know what the solution looks like; how MLB gets there will be the story. This year's new MLB.tv subscription options are just the first step.