Every Major League Baseball season has a whopping 2,430 regular-season games that are played from April through October - not counting spring training or the playoffs. That is a lot of baseball. And of course, you'd like to use your PC or tablet to watch some of those games, right?
No worries. MLB is happy, within restrictions and for a price, to make the entire schedule available to you, through its MLB.tv website and the MLB At Bat 12 app. And if you can't pony up for those, or simply want to go in another direction... well, you'll find plenty of options on the online gray market.
HD Quality - But Such Restrictions!
MLB.tv, for the money (which isn't as bad as it has been in prior seasons), is a very good deal – as far as it goes. At $84.99 per year or $19.99 per month, you will get the basic MLB.tv package; that gives you the Major League schedule in high defintion on your computer, with one feed per game, pause and rewind controls, and the ability to watch multiple games simultaneously with picture-in-picture, split screen or mosaic views.
But you don't really want this package. For a mere $15 more per year or $5 per month, the MLB.tv Premium package expands that universe substantially. For starters, it allows you to watch on any iOS or Android device. HD baseball on a current-generation iPad with the Retina display? Stunning. The extra $15 also covers the cost of the At Bat app for your devices, which also feeds you MLB news, radio broadcasts of any game from both markets (if you're feeling old-school on a summer night in your backyard) and in Spanish when available, video highlights, stats and more. It allows you to access both teams' broadcasts of any given game. Xbox Gold subscribers will find it available via their consoles – effectively substituting for the Extra Innings TV package that MLB sells to cable subscribers – and you can use a wide variety of other devices if you subscribe, including Apple TV, Sony's PlayStation 3, Roku, Boxee and some others.
Pretty perfect setup, right? Not so fast.
Unfortunately, you have to consider Major League Baseball's ridiculous blackout rules. If you're spending that $100 per year for the convenience of tracking your hometown team when you're away from your TV, you just wasted your C-note, because that's the one team you're never allowed to watch.
That's right: MLB blacks out every single game that your team plays, whether on the home or away feed, based on your geographic location as they very expansively define it. Live in Boston? No Red Sox on the iPad for you. How about, say, Kearney, Neb.? You're 325 miles of driving time away and in another state entirely, but you won't be watching any Kansas City Royals games on your Android phone. At least the blackouts don't affect you when you travel; they're based on where you are, not where you live.
Residents of the New York City tri-state area, Chicagoland, and the Bay Area get the double whammy: Two teams in each of those markets means a double blackout. (How amusing for San Jose residents: The Oakland A's would love to move there, but the San Francisco Giants have continually blocked the shift, claiming territorial rights. But for your viewing purposes? Both clubs own that market.)
MLB pulls this stunt in other places, too. For instance, Columbia, Mo., is smack between St. Louis and Kansas City. Which team gets blacked out? Both, of course.
But nobody beats the Toronto Blue Jays for territorial rights – they're blacked out everywhere in Canada.
The blackouts extend beyond local games, too: Any game being played at the same time as a national Fox broadcast on Saturday or ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball is blacked out on your MLB.tv subscriptions. And your subscription doesn't include postseason games, which fall under a separate package.
Still, MLB.tv is a fine deal for baseball fans who want to watch the rest of the major leagues online or on a mobile device. For many, that's a real draw; the ability to hear the legendary Vin Scully calling a home game for the Los Angeles Dodgers ought to be worth a hundred bucks all by itself for any true baseball fan. And it's a godsend for fans who don't live in the same town as their favorite teams. Fewer blackouts and not many other options to see the games.
But the blackouts unavoidably suggest that Major League Baseball, for as much service as it provides, is still more concerned about its broadcast deals and corporate partners than its viewing customers.
Skirting the Barriers
So, you may be stuck at work somewhere and unable to call up your hometown team on your computer. Or maybe your budget doesn't allow for the MLB.tv package. Or you just feel like sticking it to The Man (in this case, MLB Commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig). Can you still bring up your team's game on your computer?
Sure, but as with our look at how to watch the 2012 UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament, you're going to have to hit some dodgy websites that host less-than-legal streams of the games you want. You'll get far lower quality and have to steer through a host of junk to see the game you want. And before you start, you really need to read our common-sense rules for how to navigate such sites without ending up with unwanted software, malware or other needless headaches.
If you're still not deterred, you'll find the usual passel of sites that will feed you streams of pretty much any game in return for enduring their pop-ups, overlay ads and other revenue clutter. A Google search for “streaming baseball online” does the trick nicely – and unlike the soccer-specific sites that proliferate worldwide, most of the websites in your search will also bring up host links to a wide variety of other sports. (Just in case you really wanted to see a cricket match instead.) There's also a catchall site, streamtvguide.com, that acts as a portal to a wide range of streaming sites for sports feeds, as well as movies and TV shows.
We dialed in a recent St. Louis Cardinals-Detroit Tigers game to check out a couple of the sites. VIPbox.tv promised a long list of sports events, and it linked to a Flash feed of the Cards-Tigers game that came in neatly enough once we'd cleared a host of junk ads and inadvertently downloaded two software installers. (The latter prompts a new common-sense rule for dealing with these sites – on PCs, don't enable Auto-Run for downloaded software.) This site also promised the whole day's schedule for Thursday and Friday. Stream2watch.me pulled in the game with a better quality feed, but doesn't seem to have nearly as many choices.
Be aware, too, that the unauthorized landscape is very fluid and many sites don't stick around for long. For the UEFA 2012 soccer championships, we pointed you to FirstRowSports among other choices. When we clicked on StreamTVguide's slightly different link to them, up popped a Department of Homeland Security takedown notice for the domain name. The Man wins sometimes! FirstRowSports still exists with the .eu link, though, and will happily serve you the baseball game of your choice, among other sports.
If you're seeking certainty, ease, quality and extras, though, $100 for a whole season of MLB.tv is more than worth it. As long as you can live with those annoying restrictions.