Staff writer

Last fall, a father of three in the District and his wife looked at their cable bill from Comcast and knew the time was right to cut back.

The family paid more than $200 a month for cable, phone and Internet service. Verizon offered a better price, and the family decided it could live without cable. Paid subscriptions to select apps on their smart television would suffice.

And then baseball season rolled around, and that father, an avid Washington Nationals fan named Jay, realized he’d be forced to go without watching his favorite ballclub on TV.

I had the same realization this winter. I wrote about cutting the cord without giving up live sports, and found a solution for nearly every game I wanted to watch, save for my beloved Baltimore Orioles.

That’s where I struck out, as did a whole lot of local baseball fans like Jay, who resorted to illegal measures to watch local baseball. (The Washington Post agreed to only use his first name to describe his viewership practices.)

Both O’s and Nats games are broadcast exclusively on MASN or MASN2. (The Orioles have a controlling interest in MASN, and the Nationals and MASN have been locked in a years-long feud about payments.) The teams are among seven unlucky clubs — also including the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Pirates, Astros and Rockies — whose games are only available on either regional sports networks or national broadcasts.

In other words, if you’ve cut the cord and live in the Baltimore/Washington market — or if you’d rather stream games than watch them in traditional fashion — you can’t watch the vast majority of  regular season Nats and Orioles games because of blackout restrictions. This season, neither team will have a regular schedule of games broadcast on public airwaves, breaking with years of tradition.

The Nationals referred questions about online streaming to MASN and Major League Baseball. Orioles representatives did not respond to a request for comment. MASN declined to answer questions about streaming its games, instead sending a statement about its coverage.

“MASN and MASN2 will now be the exclusive channels to watch Nationals baseball in the mid-Atlantic region,” MASN managing editor Pete Kerzel wrote in an email. “Also for the first time, MASN and MASN2 will be the only channels where you can watch each ‘Nats Xtra’ pregame and postgame show.”

That setup is not exactly welcome news to nontraditional viewers. Especially around Washington, the issue has left some fans pretty unhappy.

“Every other team and every other sport has gone to this and MASN is still stuck in the Dark Ages,” said Brian Pasco, 31, of College Park, using a bit of hyperbole. He’s a lifelong D.C. sports fan now living a baseball-less life.

“The fans are upset and I want people to know it,” he added. “Being in a major market with two teams and having both those teams blacked out, it’s crazy.”

The situation led Jay to turn to less-than-legitimate ways to watch games.

Major League Baseball offers a streaming service, MLB.TV, where users can watch pretty much every baseball game all year for $115.99, or watch just a single team’s games for $89.99. That coverage, though, is blacked out in local markets. And MASN, unlike many regional sports networks, does not have a service to broadcast the games online. So if you live in this baseball market — which for both Baltimore and Washington extends from southern Pennsylvania through all of North Carolina, a distance of some 500 miles — “local” games are unavailable for streaming.

To me and you, MASN’s strategy doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense. Why won’t regional sports networks serve that streaming market?

The answer has to do with advertising revenue, said Galen Clavio, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. Cable advertising is aimed at a specific geographic audience, which provides assurances to ad-buyers that the eyeballs they reach are at least near their product.

Ads on streaming services, which anyone in the world can access, don’t come with that same regional exclusivity. That’s great for national advertisers — think of corporate beer or car commercials — but not for the furniture store or car dealer down the street, Clavio said. It’s those ad dollars regional sports networks can’t afford to scare away, since those are the ones that fund the run-of-the-mill broadcast.

“It doesn’t seem logical to you or me or anyone else in the area who wants to watch baseball,” Clavio said. “But this is how regional sports networks have decided they’re going to keep eyeballs and therefore keep advertising dollars.”

And it leaves just one legitimate solution for Nationals and Orioles fans: get cable — even if it’s only for MASN and MASN2 — and watch games on television.

That’s what Andrew Muchnick, 23, of Vienna, did. He and his girlfriend chose to go without cable when they moved in November, and were thrilled with the results. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime and a broadcast antenna, they had more programming than they could imagine.

And then baseball season came, and Muchnick, an Orioles’ fan, was without his cherished Birds. He called Verizon and asked for the cheapest possible cable package that would get him MASN and MASN2.

He ended up with a home phone number, to boot, but never actually purchased a landline. The cost savings from his cord cutting days are marginal, he said.

“The biggest stick in my craw about this was that I had to get cable when I was 100 percent content, until I wanted to get baseball,” Muchnick said. “If I didn’t want to watch baseball and I wanted to watch basketball, I wouldn’t have this problem.”

But for Jay, that wasn’t a realistic option. His family already pays for Netflix for movies and television programming. And paying by the month for live sports apps, like ESPN or Fox Sports, was still cheaper than cable.

Instead of turning back to cable, he decided to go around it.

He switched from Comcast to Verizon for Internet service and pooled with a several other viewers to share an MLB.TV subscription. To get around the local blackouts, he purchased a virtual private network, or VPN, which disguises his location and keeps MLB.TV from blocking the games.

In all, he said, he spends $47 a month on baseball during the season:

  • $40 a month for Internet (a necessary expense beyond baseball)
  • $2 a month for his part of the MLB.TV subscription
  • $5 a month for the VPN (which he’ll drop after the season ends)

“I get that it’s not exactly the most 100 percent legal solution,” Jay said. “But it’s one of those, where it’s a very low-level issue for me. I want to watch the games. I’m still paying to see them. … I’m naturally risk averse.

“I know that there are resources out there for people to find free streams of games. But I’m happy to pay for a product that I like and consume.”

For Pasco, his anger at Nationals, Orioles and MASN executives makes him one of those fans looking for free and illicit streams online, he said. There’s an entire section of the social networking site Reddit dedicated to under-the-table baseball broadcasts.

“I want them to see how frustrated people are with the situation,” he said of the executives. “All my friends do the same thing. They stream it online illegally.”

So where exactly does that leave me?

I’m definitely not going back to cable, and I’m not about to admit to illegally streaming baseball games. (Plus, I’m the rule-following type).

I’ve found the Reddit streams have too many pop-up ads and it’s not worth the risk of potentially getting malware on my computer.

I don’t want to mess with a VPN (though Jay told me it was really easy to set up: just a few clicks, and one changed setting on his smart TV) or finding enough people to split an MLB.TV subscription to make it a reasonable part of my budget.

Which probably means I’ll spend more nights at the ballpark, trying to sneak out of work early one Friday a month (If my editors are reading this, just kidding!) and get a nosebleed seat at Camden Yards for $20.

After a cold drink and a hot dog, I’ll probably end up spending the same amount Jay does each month, too.

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