Give Us Back Our Baseball

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At the risk of offending readers who are concerned, for judicious reasons, with inflation, the border, civil war in Ethiopia, the baselessly pleasing notion that the Supreme Court might supply the remedy for various maladies which the same judicial host introduced long ago to the American body politic, and whatever “gain-of-function research” means, I would like to suggest that their silence makes them complicit in one of the gravest scandals of our age: the unavailability of “in-market” professional baseball on internet streaming platforms. I for one will not remain mute.

At the end of March, just before the Major League season opener, Fox Sports Detroit was replaced, along with 19 other regional sports networks, by something called “Bally Sports.” The now displaced networks held the rights to broadcast games for 14 MLB teams (and countless others in the NBA and the NHL). The new channels that now occupy the old Fox stable—Bally Sports Great Lakes, Bally Sports Florida, Bally Sports Midwest, and so on—appear to be the concern of something called Diamond Sports Group, itself a joint venture undertaken by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and Entertainment Studios, the latter of which is part of the so-called Allen Media Group, the owner of the Weather Channel, which had in turn originally acquired the Fox regional networks from the Walt Disney Company when the latter purchased 21st Century Fox in 2019 following its previous acquisitions of Lucasfilm, Marvel, ESPN, and your soul.

As far as I can tell, Bally, a Rhode Island-based gambling company that began life in 2004 as BLB Investors, got hold of the rights to the Bally’s Casino trademark, which had in turn been borrowed from a Chicago manufacturer of pinball machines and primitive arcade games that seems to have been acquired by Hilton Hotels during the 1990s. In other words the company that plays “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” at 1:30 a.m. to drunks and third-shift diner waitresses thinks that the best public relations strategy for its new sports channels is to borrow the name from a sleazy casino operator that itself licensed its moniker from a defunct Midwestern toymaker. “Bally Sports” is a misnomer, like one of those pieces of Chinese plastic emblazoned with the comfortingly familiar logo of some once-revered brand long since obtained by venture capitalists trading upon the credulity of polite consumers: Brooks Brothers, Carhartt, Lionel, Fisher Price, Chevrolet…

But I digress. The problem with Bally Sports Detroit—I cannot for a moment feign concern in these trying times for baseball fans in other markets, similarly afflicted though they doubtlessly are—is that for reasons that are utterly mysterious, the network is unavailable on YouTube TV, Hulu, or divers other online hosts patronized by those of us who do not wish to pay upwards of $150 a month to flip past Nickelodeon and Animal Planet and The Real Housewives of Danville, Illinois on the way to the first half of a doubleheader or our daily fix of Skip and Shannon Undisputed on FS1.

Statistics are difficult to locate, but anecdotal evidence suggests that as recently as three years ago, it was extraordinarily common for “cord-cutters” to choose YouTube TV precisely because it gave customers the same sports offerings available to cable and satellite subscribers. In my family’s case it was not even cord cutting per se, but a desire to watch football and baseball on ESPN and Big 10 Network and Fox Sports with our own login credentials for once. We were, in other words, trying to do the right thing. (For much the same reason, we refuse to avail ourselves of a subscription to MLB TV and a VPN server, which may or may not be the single most popular means by which Americans under the age of 50 actually enjoy our former national pastime.)

Then last year, after hearing my grandparents complain about the price of their cable bill, we decided to sign them up for YouTube TV, which at the time cost less than a third of what they had been paying for well-nigh hundreds of channels about which both of them knew little and cared less. During what passed for last year’s baseball season all was well: Kirk Gibson’s beautifully soporific drone put members of my family spanning four generations to sleep on at least 30 separate occasions while the second-worst franchise in the American League embarrassed itself in the ways to which we were all accustomed (the canonical Tigers loss is 0-1, with the fatal run scored in the top of the eighth).

This year things have been different. While I do not not actually regret the hours I have spent tuning in (literally) with my ancient General Electric portable radio, I do wonder why I am paying for YouTube TV, the price of which has more than doubled in the last two years, ostensibly because it now offers the same hundred channels in which I and millions of others had no interest when we initially subscribed at vastly lower rates. More important, I find myself asking why a sport in terminal crisis, one with a fan base aging more rapidly than the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, insists upon being unavailable to young viewers and, especially, young families like mine.

In a merrier world, it goes without saying that none of this would happen. All 30 teams in the Major League would be publicly owned, their games broadcast freely on public television, their tickets distributed by an inexpensive lottery system, their concessions reasonably priced, their vendors unionized, their smoking sections generously accommodated, their player salaries enormous but (unlike under the present luxury tax system) fairly capped, and their schedules synchronized with the liturgical calendar.

If men were angels, no government would be necessary, nor would an agreement between Bally Sports and the various streaming platforms. (As it happens, Milton does tell us that spiritual beings both fallen and otherwise engage in various sports.) But dull sublunary baseball fans who cannot afford or simply refuse to contract cable services (perhaps because their televisions are even older than their vehicles) need looking out for, too. Figure it out, guys.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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