COVID, Blackouts, and Buffalo’s Return to the Show

Sahlen Field displaying the Toronto Blue Jays logo. Sahlen Field is slated to host 25 of the Blue Jays’ 60 games. Photo Source: Buffalo Bisons/Facebook.

Major League Baseball is scheduled to return to Buffalo for the first time in over a century on August 11, as the Toronto Blue Jays face the Miami Marlins at Sahlen Field.

Well, that’s what is planned.

A COVID breakout amongst the Miami Marlins may put Buffalo’s Major League dreams on ice, again. The Marlins, despite knowing that they had positive tests within the team, decided to play their game Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies after agreeing to play through a group text. A group text is the certified communication method for parents to ask their children what time practice is over and convey what’s for dinner, not to decide whether to play a baseball game with the risk of transmitting a deadly virus. Or, at least, that’s what we all thought. As a result, 17 people within the Marlin organization tested positive, and their next two games against the Baltimore Orioles are postponed. Additionally, the Philadelphia Phillies’ next two games against the New York Yankees have been postponed as well.

In 1993, Buffalo’s MLB expansion hopes were ruined, when the National League decided to expand to two other cities. One city was Denver.

The other was Miami. Typical Buffalo luck.

Twenty-seven years after destroying Buffalo’s professional hopes, the same franchise may do it again. But how did we even get to this point?

On March 7, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a state of emergency across New York State in response to COVID-19. Governor Cuomo has this power through the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Consitution, as each State is responsible for the “welfare, safety, and health” of people within its borders. Just three days after Governor Cuomo’s executive order, the NBA suspended its season due to a player on the Utah Jazz testing positive for COVID-19 on March 11, essentially shutting down professional sports within the United States and Canada. On May 11, New York instituted a phased reopening plan, with Western New York entering Phase 4 on June 29.

Phase 4 is significant, as it allows for professional sports competitions without fans. However, getting to Phase 4 required hard work by essential workers, primarily by doctors, nurses, and other first responders who helped curtail COVID-19 in Western New York.

As things stood on June 29, fans were preparing for the Buffalo Bills to start training camp later in the summer. But somehow, after being denied by the Canadian government, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, after LED bulb deliveries and clubhouse expansions, and a poster that needs a rocket scientist to explain, the Toronto Blue Jays will call Buffalo, NY home for the 2020 season.

While Shalen Field needs upgrades, Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro says that the updates will be so significant that the players will be “shocked.”

Playing professional baseball in Buffalo is the fulfillment of the dream that former Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin had for the city. County Executive Mark Poloncarz states that while he does not know how Griffin would feel about the Blue Jays playing here, Griffin would want to throw out the first pitch. Poloncarz went on to say that first responders should take the honors of throwing out the first pitch. However, will the game be on television in Buffalo? Probably not.

The Buffalo media market is an interesting one. The closest MLB team to the city is the Toronto Blue Jays. However, the U.S. Canadian border acts as the Great Wall. Cable television channels, thus broadcasts of the Blue Jays, are not carried in Buffalo. The same goes for the Toronto Raptors. The Maple Leafs are a bit different, as Hockey Night in Canada is not blacked out on CBC, carried on cable in Buffalo. YES and SNY carries Yankees and Mets games in Buffalo, despite being roughly 280 miles further away from Buffalo than Toronto. Additionally, Buffalo is in-market for the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates; however, their regional sports networks (RSNs) are not carried in Buffalo television packages.

Canadian channels are not broadcast into the United States due to duplicity and rights agreements. Canadian channels sign deals to broadcast sporting events inside Canada, and nowhere else. They are landlocked into these agreements by leagues and teams. For example, Sportsnet has the exclusive rights to national broadcasts of the NHL in Canada. While in the United States, NBC has the right to national broadcasts of the NHL. If Sportsnet were to broadcast in the United States, or NBCSN in Canada, it would be a violation of the rights agreement contract between the network and the league. The cost of providing duplicate sports programming, without any ability to broadcast live sports, is not a risk any channel would take.

The lack of Canadian television in Buffalo, despite the proximity to Toronto, creates the divide between two cities that are culturally similar. Even though it is considered a disadvantage at first, this presents a unique opportunity for Buffalo. Through these unusual circumstances, the Toronto Blue Jays, through playing in Buffalo, become the first MLB team with in-market over-the-top (OTT) streaming.

Professional sports teams sign with RSNs, such as MSG and YES, for the right to broadcast their games. The Buffalo Sabres, despite having the smallest professional sports media market in the United States, signed with MSG for over $19 million a year to broadcast Sabres games on the channel. On the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a deal with Time Warner Cable (now Charter Spectrum) for $8.35 billion over 25 years. For these channels to pay teams for the right to broadcast games, the cable and satellite companies pay subscriber fees to add the channel to their television lineups. These fees are often very large. Occasionally, the prices are high to the point that they would disrupt the pricing of cable packages, which is why until the current 2020 season, Dodger games were not available to 70% of Los Angeles households.

However, with the rise of over-the-top streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, customers have been unsubscribing from television packages in favor of streaming. COVID-19 accelerated the decline, as pay-TV lost 2.1 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2020. The steady decline of pay-TV will force RSNs to look outside of the box. The cable box that is.

Buffalo having OTT in-market streaming will be a first for Major League Baseball. Buffalo becomes the experiment to see of a Netflix-like RSN will be viable going forward. There is reason to believe that it will. ESPN’s streaming platform ESPN+ has 7.9 million subscribers in just over two years. However, the streaming capabilities have never been taken to regional broadcasts in the United States. The Blue Jays become the first to offer it in-market streaming across MLB, NBA, and NHL. For $49.99, streamers can purchase the single-team streaming package from MLB.tv, with the ability to stream the non-national games of the Toronto Blue Jays on their phones, computers, and streaming devices. For Blue Jays games to be broadcast inside of the Buffalo market on cable, the Blue Jays would have to agree to terms with the Yankees, Mets, Pirates, and Indians, which seems very unlikely at such late notice. Thus, OTT in-market streaming is the only option.

Sports blackouts are in place to protect a team’s home territory from having a more significant, richer team broadcast within it. However, while it protects the team’s rights, it hurts the consumer. Just because of their location, consumers are obligated to pay extra for the right to watch their team. Usually, this occurs when a fan of Boston lives in New York. However, in this case, it’s the opposite. Even tenants who live in Seneca One Tower overlooking Sahlen Field have to pay extra to watch the game that they can view outside of their windows. Typical Buffalo luck. However, in a year full of disaster, surprise, turmoil, and hard work, it may be a cost that fans of Buffalo are willing to pay in order to see their city on the national stage: the stage that this city deserves to be on.

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'21 J.D. Candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Law.​

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