Courtesy sherrymane and Guilherme Caldas/via; edited by Ann Basu
Sports / Baseball

The Dodgers are the Best Team No One Can Watch

Despite a horrific stretch of play over the past month, the Los Angeles Dodgers are sitting pretty with a 99-57 record, nine games ahead of their closest competitor in the National League West. Fangraphs’ projections have them ending the season with over a hundred wins and the best record in Major League Baseball. Those same projections see the Dodgers as a favorite to win the pennant and advance to their first World Series since 1988. With such a popular, exciting team to drive them, it is no surprise to find that Dodgers television ratings rank…. bottom five in all of baseball? Huh?

The culprit is a cable blackout that has left most of Los Angeles without access to Dodgers baseball. If that wasn’t bad enough, the blackout is a direct result of the lucrative television contract that the franchise signed in 2013. While the deal was a major windfall for the organization, it has turned into a catastrophe for the people of Los Angeles. In a cruel twist of irony, the resources propelling the Dodgers’ success have cost Los Angeles fans the ability to watch their team.

The rise of the Dodgers juggernaut has been fueled by an unlimited supply of cash. A quick check of Major League Baseball’s team salaries finds the Dodgers squarely at the top, with $242 million in commitments—over forty million dollars higher than the second-place Yankees. How did the Dodgers become a literal manifestation of Scrooge McDuck?

An obscenely wealthy ownership group certainly helped. However, the Dodgers also made their money the way that most teams do: through a local television deal. The Dodgers sold the rights to their games for $8.3 billion in 2013 to Time Warner Cable. Time Warner created a new Dodgers-only channel and began to charge its subscribers for access to the games.

Unfortunately, Time Warner sought to recoup the profits from its multibillion-dollar investment and priced the Dodgers channel at an exorbitant five dollars per month. For comparison, the Los Angeles Lakers channel is sold in the same manner and costs half that much. Despite the high price, Time Warner subscribers were at least given the opportunity to bite the bullet; if they wanted to watch Dodgers games, they could purchase the channel. However, Los Angeles residents without Time Warner subscriptions were not given this choice. The politics of cable television denied them any chance to see their team play.

Time Warner bought exclusive control of the team’s television rights, so if other Los Angeles cable companies wanted to show Dodgers baseball, they had to purchase the channel from Time Warner. Unsurprisingly, Time Warner’s competitors were not particularly excited to add five dollars to their cable bills. Los Angeles television providers stood their ground and refused to pay for the channel. The move saved their subscribers money, but it also left three million households without access to Dodgers games.

There is no end to this dispute in sight. Time Warner was purchased last spring by Charter Communications, which lowered the price of the Dodgers’ channel to three dollars and fifty cents. Despite the price cut, other providers have not relented. Charter has already reported a $100 million loss from the rate decrease, so another price cut is unlikely. Moreover, a change in the position of the competitors is equally improbable. The competing cable companies have remained resolute in their opposition and bizarrely silent on the issue. DirecTV, the largest of the providers, even refuses to disclose the date of its last negotiations with Charter. Given the current state of affairs, it would take a miracle to resolve the impasse.

The Dodgers cable deal has become a disaster, to be sure. However, the profits from the contract have been instrumental in building the recent crop of Dodgers teams. As cited above, the Dodgers have the highest payroll in all of baseball. The resource gap is so great that Major League Baseball owners have banded together to curb the Dodgers’ extravagance, adding a new luxury tax with onerous punishments for rampant spenders.  Amazingly, though, looking at player salaries alone understates the magnitude of the investment poured into the club by Dodgers ownership.

The franchise has also bankrolled a massive expansion of its research and development department. The Dodgers employ the second largest analytics staff in all of baseball and have funded cutting-edge research in injury prevention and player development. The team’s staff contains an unfathomable collection of talent; the Dodgers have six former General Managers working in their front office. Each undoubtedly receives and declines job offers to run his own team. One can only imagine what it costs to keep them all in Los Angeles.

By investing in all areas of the franchise, the Dodgers have built the best team that money can buy. Since 2014, the Dodgers have won ninety-four, ninety-two, and ninety-one games, winning their division each time. However, this season has been particularly special. The Dodgers were unbeatable for most of the summer. At one point they stood at eighty-five to thirty-four (!) and the team was in striking distance of the single-season record of 116 wins. An extended losing streak dashed these hopes, but did little to change their position in the standings. It could be a lifetime before the Dodgers repeat the success they have found this year. Tragically, the team’s fans have been unable to watch this magical season unfold.