There are times when a person should not be able to watch the New York Mets. For example: on a Sunday afternoon on the Q train, on an iPhone, as the Mets reliever Jeff Brigham hits back-to-back batters with pitches, forcing in two game-losing runs, then screams into his glove. That is a private moment between the Mets and those who have made the mistake of being in their presence, and it’s not to be shared with viewers at home or on their mobile devices. Most of the time, however, watching baseball should be easy.
It is not. In the streaming era, different sports, games, and teams might be scattered across any number of competing services, with terms subject to change at a moment’s notice. Until this month, I had mostly watched baseball on the regional sports network SNY, which I accessed with a YouTubeTV subscription. (Like many people, I don’t have cable.) But SNY and YouTubeTV no longer have a deal. They just couldn’t come to one! Sometimes the Mets game is not on SNY, anyway; instead it’s on ESPN, FOX, or TBS, or Apple TV+, or Peacock. The games are always on MLB TV, but there is no amount of money I can pay to watch them there, because I live in New York City, which is “home television territory” for the Mets and therefore blacked out.
The Kafkaesque conditions of the system have led baseball fans into a life of crime. We are in a golden age of illegal sports streaming: There are many, many easily accessible and surprisingly high-quality sites, with crisp videos and fine enough sound. Just browse baseball Reddit. “I would like to be able to watch without having to sail the seven seas,” a Cincinnati Reds fan writes, wondering whether there are any better options. This is code for piracy. A fellow fan responds: “Ahoy, maytee.” Angels fans have no choice. Diamondbacks fans have no choice. Cardinals fans have no choice. Braves fans have no choice (but who cares?). “What if every team was named after the best way to watch their games in their home market?” some jokester asks, before providing a list of these hypothetical rebrandings: New York Pirates, Boston Pirates, Los Angeles Pirates, the other New York Pirates. Streaming sports is exceptionally easy, and hundreds of thousands of people hanging out in the MLB Streams forum on Reddit are ready to help you.
In fact, according to a report in The Guardian from 2021, online video piracy is “easier than ever.” The number of people trying it rose during the coronavirus pandemic, while people were stuck at home and craving bottomless entertainment. But illegal sports streaming was on an upward trajectory long before that. In a 2017 industry survey, 54 percent of Millennials admitted to having watched illegal streams of live sports. Nick Keller, the chair of the Sports Industry Group, which conducted the survey, fretted: “Unless we are careful we will have a generation of young people who consider pirated sports content to be the norm.” And now here we are—streaming illegally or reluctantly pivoting to radio and pretending that it’s a desirable lifestyle choice.
In the past few years, the plight of a baseball fan has been further complicated by the hunger of Big Tech companies, many of which have been salivating for ages over the eyeballs provided by live sports. In March 2022, the MLB made a deal with Apple TV+ to stream some Friday-night games—these were initially free to watch, and now they’re not. A month later, the league struck a deal with NBC to stream 18 Sunday-morning games a season on the Peacock app. This spring, Amazon Prime Video announced that it would show 20 Yankees games. Meanwhile, many regional sports networks are crumbling; in March, Diamond Sports, which owns 19 of them, declared bankruptcy. After the company failed to make a payment on its debts in May, the league itself took over production and distribution of San Diego Padres games. “I assume it will only get worse,” the Mets expert and Atlantic contributor Devin Gordon told me. “The season will continue to get diced and divvied up among various subscription services, and it’ll be the third inning before you figure out which platform is airing the game.”
Sometimes, technology makes things worse. Streaming services were supposed to create a more convenient and less expensive life for those of us who don’t want cable packages. But if you want to watch the game, you will end up flipping through premium subscription services like they themselves are channels. It used to be uncomplicated: We would go to work and then we would watch the game. Week after week, we would grind it out, and so would our favorite multimillionaires in matching outfits. This is the way it should be. Nothing should keep us apart. Including, some might say—if you really force their hands—the law.