The Shapkins Defender – I Want My MLB TV

Welcome to The Shapkins Defender, where I inhale your toxic screeds and spit out the fresh oxygen of optimism, like a tree that kind of understands WAR. (Just don’t ask me to explain it.)

This time, I really wanted to be writing about projections again. In a previous post, I had talked about projections and how the Jays were the kind of team that could wind up ahead of their projections. And I was going to tie that into this similarly-bullish piece at FanGraphs.

And I was also going to talk about Baseball America still having the Jays in the number 6 slot on their organization talent rankings in spite of graduating so many prospects last year. And I was going to talk about the FanGraphs top 100 prospects having four Jays on the list. And then there’s Keith Law’s list also having four Jays on it, but in a slightly different way. And it was all going to be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows about the coming season and the even rosier picture beyond that and so on and so on.

Unfortunately, I have to talk about this MLB TV bullshit.

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Sigh. Defeated sigh.

This is really disappointing. And though I will be directly impacted by this because I have been a user of MLB TV for many years now, I also think it’s dumb for other, better, non-selfish reasons.

Even though there’s nothing to directly implicate Shapiro in this scheme, it’s hard not to see his fingerprints on it. Over at The Athletic, Blue Jays Nation alum Andrew Stoeten lays it out in a great piece about the whole situation.

In it, he references Shapiro saying that the team needs to generate more “premium revenue” from the Rogers Centre and then pointing out that the 2018 home opener would be more profitable than previous years even though it wasn’t sold out.

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And then there’s the words of Shapiro himself, in this interview with Kaitlyn McGrath, also of The Athletic.

Shapiro denies having any input on the decision, saying, “I was not consulted. We were not engaged. MLB just said, ‘OK, we’re flipping the switch on this. Your rights-holder is who controls your streaming rights. And they need to compensate you for those.’  But you don’t have the right to say you’re on or off MLB.TV. That’s the nature of the system.”

This doesn’t pass the smell test, in my opinion. MLB TV has allowed the Jays to opt out of the blackout policy for a number of years. Why would the league suddenly be so eager to push people off their streaming platform and onto another? Unless I’m missing something, it seems like Rogers is the real benefactor of this move, making Sportsnet NOW the only (legal) way to stream the Jays in Canada.

When it comes to massive corporations, I don’t think that decisions like this are made by a single individual. I’m sure there were many meetings and then emails “circling back” about those meetings. But it’s clear that Shapiro sees it as part of his job description to be harvesting every morsel of revenue he can, like a child licking the inside of a candy bar wrapper. (Or if you prefer your similes to be cultured yet explicit: like a character in Naked Lunch addicted to the Mugwump fluid. Don’t look that up if you’re under 18.)

I can’t claim to be surprised. I’ve known this is how businesses operate since I was 16 and I snuck into Fight Club. (Yes, like all teenage boys, I was very awesome and not obnoxious in any way.) The protagonist, who works for a major car company lays it out simply…

“A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”

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As I’ve transitioned from obnoxious teenager into obnoxious adult, I haven’t really found a reason to doubt the core of this message. Big companies don’t have morals or ethics. They tend to just get in the way of profits. Even when they profess to care about something, it’s usually a PR campaign to siphon criticism away from the immoral stuff they do as a matter of course. Just look at the big non-Rogers media company in Canada.

So, when Shapiro says, “It’s a policy that they feel maximizes the value of the rights, so everything is meant to be as fan-friendly as possible and still very accessible to fans,” that’s bullshit. I mean, “maximizes the value” is the true part. But “fan-friendly as possible”? Speaking as a fan, if you wanted to be friendly to me, you’d leave my MLB TV alone and buy me a beer and tell me that my tweets are underrated.

So, fuck. Defeated sigh again. It’s frustrating, but few fan bases are exempt from having their spirits broken by the business side of things. This offseason has seen the billionaire owners of the Cubs cry poor and do nothing to improve their team, while the Red Sox insisted on making their team worse getting rid of a generational talent just to save a few bucks.

But the really frustrating thing here is that I don’t even think this is a good business decision! Sure, Sportsnet NOW will gain a few subscribers in the short term. But this just makes Blue Jays baseball less accessible to the non-fan, or the casual fan. Going back to Stoeten, he puts it like this.

“Around 2014, the Blue Jays began to grandfather out their ‘Ballpark Pass’ — essentially a season ticket that guaranteed a seat in the 500 level for every game, excluding the home opener, for about $100 per year. It was done away with entirely prior to the 2016 season. I had one of those passes for over a decade, including those final years when it became very clear that the Blue Jays would ultimately phase them out. And I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t have this job, wouldn’t be writing this piece, and might not even be much of a baseball fan at all without it.”

Hear, hear! I am in a very similar boat. I didn’t really watch baseball for almost 20 years, starting from about the ’94 strike. I only got back in because, in 2013, I moved into an apartment that had free cable. And this was just after the Jays made the massive trade with the Marlins, which gave the team an air of excitement for the first time in a while. I started watching games here and there, becoming enough of a fan again to continue watching when I moved out of that apartment a year later. MLB TV allowed me to do that. And though Rogers didn’t get much of my money from that free cable and MLB TV, they got it back when I started going to games again and bought a great many $13 beers.

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To me, this MLB TV decision is like, say, Stephen King deciding to pull all of his books out of libraries. While he may have a few ardent fans with deep pockets that will lead to a quick uptick in sales, how many future sales is he sacrificing by not giving people an avenue to become fans in the first place? Even the blood-sucking lawyer from Jurassic Park wanted to have a coupon day. 

The only silver lining I can see in this is that Shapiro and Rogers seem to have a plan that requires the team to get good again. Now, I’m no businessman. But if you’re averaging about 21,000 fans a game in your 50,000 seat stadium, you can only make so much profit, even if they are a caviar-swilling and monocle-wearing bunch.

In the Kaitlyn McGrath interview with Shapiro I referenced earlier, she asks him about the payroll, which she estimates is about $107 million or so, about 60-70 million less than it was in 2017 and 2018. Will it be able to go up at some point? “The dialogue and the conversation from the time that we started more aggressively rebuilding has always been like, there will be a juncture — and the main junctures come in July and the offseason — that we will need to outspend revenue and outpace revenue, and enter into either free agency or trades with significant impact,” Shapiro says. “But I’m confident — I can’t speak with certainty because I’m not the owner — but I’m confident that we’ll get the support. It is something that we’ve talked about frequently.”

So, payroll is way down from a few years ago. But to go back up again would mean operating at a loss? For all these plans of “dynamic pricing” and “premium revenue”, it seems it really only starts putting money in the bank once the place is packed again. If they succeed in building an elite team out of all those prospects, Rogers will control every avenue to enjoy it. And fans like myself won’t be able to resist paying the 100% service charge. But how many of us will there be when that time comes?

Defeated sigh.

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If you have a beef, hot take, diatribe, harangue, tirade or jeremiad, send it to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.