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MLS Streaming Blackouts are Bad News for Everyone

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The MLS blackout rules hurt all parties involved in the broadcast and viewing of matches.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Eight games into the 2019 Major League Soccer season, there is probably a pain you’ve experienced at least once — turning on the Orlando City match via your preferred streaming method only to discover it’s a blackout. If you live anywhere near Central Florida and have not been able to make it to Orlando City Stadium for one or more of the home games, this might even be a regular frustration. No one can blame you for being one of the estimated 33 million Americans that have cut the cable cord and turned to YouTube TV, ESPN+, or PlayStation Vue to keep up with the Lions.

For several seasons, MLS offered its MLS Live streaming service, designed to be a specific application to watch “out-of-market” MLS matches. Essentially, if you lived in an “MLS Blackout Area,” defined as the corresponding area within the MLS team region that is determined by the type of broadcaster carrying the game locally, you would only have access to every other MLS club’s games except for your local team. Thankfully, there are 13 teams that chose not to exercise this policy — because fans were more important to those organizations than the almighty dollar, one can only assume. Orlando City was not one of those clubs, unfortunately.

To no one’s surprise, fans of the teams that decided blackouts sounded like a great idea were not thrilled by the fact they could pay over $70 a season to not see their local team’s games. Ultimately, MLS decided to do away with its streaming service and instead partner with ESPN to bring all the out-of-market coverage you can handle to ESPN+. Initially, the hope was that the new deal would end the blackout restrictions. With MLS firmly in the hands of Commissioner Don Garber, the opposite was true as ESPN+ unilaterally blacks out all local games for every MLS team.

The quick translation of all this, specifically as it applies to the 2019 season, is that if you live even somewhat “locally” and don’t have access to My65 via an actual cable company, you won’t be able to watch any of the Orlando City matches that they broadcast. While it’s all well and good that the Lions’ front office has partnered with YouTube TV for streaming, that is absolutely zero help for local fans since the game will still be blacked out.

Considering ESPN+ is obviously not an option either, maybe a streaming service that carries My65 would work? Nope. The only service I found, after researching every one I discovered, that even has My65 — PlayStation Vue — blacks out the matches on there, too. For what little it’s worth, here’s the official MLS information regarding where the games stream.

Of course, a quick Google search of “MLS blackout workaround” provides you with mostly not-on-the-up-and-up ways to cheat the system, though that is definitely not a recommended solution. Sadly, there is no easy and morally correct way to solve this issue currently. In addition to loyal fans not being able to watch the Lions play when they can’t make it to a match, there are plenty of other losers in the streaming blackout battle.

The other most apparent entities that are hurt by the blackout restrictions are the clubs themselves. We all know that soccer doesn’t have the foothold here in the United States that it does in Europe, South America, Central America, and elsewhere. When more casual fans can’t follow or get seriously invested in their local team, that is potential revenue for the club flushed down the drain. The same can be said for MLS as a whole, but it’s pretty difficult to feel sorry for Garber et al when it’s their blackout rules causing the problem.

Advertisers also shouldn’t be fans of blackouts. Fewer people tuning into a match equals fewer eyes on the ads a company spent good money to run. Likewise, streaming services certainly do not benefit from blackouts either. All of those services I tested out to determine if they had My65 and/or would black out the games could have easily had my money if I had been able to watch the Lions play.

Who does gain something from the blackout rules then? It could be argued that perhaps the local stations such as My65 gain more viewers because they’re literally the only place to watch the matches. On the flip side, however, the resentment and bad taste that blackouts create for fans might hurt those stations just as well. It surely appears that there are no legitimate winners when it comes to MLS blackouts.