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Game On: House bill aims to prohibit MLB game coverage blackouts in Iowa
Bill sponsor J.D. Scholten to meet with MLB next week
In 2021, ahead of Major League Baseball’s inaugural “Field of Dreams“ game in Dyersville next to the filming site of the iconic 1989 movie, a billboard was taken out decrying the sport’s television blackouts.
“Commissioner Manfred: End The MLB Blackouts, Let Iowans Watch Their Favorite Teams,” it read.
A bipartisan pair of Iowa House lawmakers on Thursday announced the introduction a bill aimed at banning MLB TV blackouts in the state.
House File 577, filed by Rep. J.D. Scholten — a Democrat from Sioux City and former professional baseball player — prohibits a sports broadcasting entity from “preventing major league baseball broadcasting through a blackout to paying customers of the sports broadcasting entity.”
“The aim of this bipartisan legislation is to grow America’s game, alleviate Iowa baseball fans from unfairness from media companies, and relieve bar owners from the overly burdensome purchasing of multiple channels and MLB.tv,” Scholten said in a statement announcing the legislation.
Scholten co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton.
The bill was assigned to a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, which Kaufmann chairs, exempting it from the legislative funnel deadline.
“Iowans are disproportionately hurt by this.” Kaufmann said in a statement. “Despite paying for a subscription, we are unable to watch the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals. If all six teams play other teams, that’s 40 percent of MLB games that Iowans are unable to watch on any given night.”
Iowa does not have an MLB team, yet it and Nevada have the most broadcast blackouts of any state, Scholten said.
In December 2020, MLB cut 40 minor league teams, including longtime teams in Burlington and Clinton, and retained three minor league teams in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport (the Iowa Cubs, Cedar Rapids Kernels and Quad City River Bandits, respectively).
All three minor league teams have major league affiliates whose games are blacked out to Iowans. Meaning the players Iowans may have been able to watch in person in the minor leagues are not televised upon making it to the majors.
Scholten said bar owners are highly impacted by the TV blackouts, as they must pay for MLB.tv, in addition to regional broadcast stations in order to retain their patrons and keep their bars open. That places an unfair, undue expense on all Iowans who just want to watch some baseball, Kaufmann said.
Blackouts were implemented to protect local TV partners, driving fans to watch the local broadcast, and motivate people to attend games in person. However, critics argue media companies have continued to use blackouts as a way to make money at fans’ expense.
Currently, regional broadcasts have lucrative deals with teams that create motivation to keep the teams under blackout. Meaning, that if MLB.tv blacks out the games, there’s incentive to purchase the regional networks.
Streaming, too, has become the preferred viewing choice of many fans, leading to frustration when a game is not available.
Google’s YouTube TV and MLB failed to reach a renewal for MLB Network before it expired at the end of January, and as a result the channel is no longer available on the internet streaming package.
MLB Network TV, which did not respond to a request for comment on the bill as of press time Thursday, hired a regional sports network executive earlier this year as it looks to end local broadcast blackouts.
Do lawmakers have the authority to end blackouts?
Asked whether Iowa has the regulatory authority to tell the MLB to end TV blackouts in the state, House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said the intent of the bill is “to raise awareness of the fact that this is a really hard market for this, and that it’s not fair to Iowa viewers.”
“Is there a really clean legislative fix for this at the state level? I’m not sure that there is, but we think it’s important to try to move the needle a little bit on this,” said Konfrst, who grew up watching the Chicago Cubs on WGN.
“Instead of motivating us to go to more games in person, the lack of access on TV has made us less engaged fans who don't know the players as well,” she said, “We love being Cubs fans. We just want to watch the games and follow the team so we can enjoy our visits to Wrigley (Field) more. Blackout rules are more about money than the fan experience, and that's against the spirit of America's game.”
Scholten said he is set to meet with MLB officials next week to talk about the issue.
“One of the many things that we’re going to begin discussing is where they think they have the access and control, and what I have access to control and what we can do here,” he said.
The Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states.
“It should be a federal issue, but we have to do what we can at the state level to help raise awareness,” Scholten said, adding he’s hopeful it will pass the House. “At the bare minimum, I hope it pushes (MLB) more” to address blackouts in the state.
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