Blackout-Free Baseball

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I like baseball. I don’t have cable TV. And Major League Baseball doesn’t want to let me watch my beloved Toronto Blue Jays. This post will explain how I’m doing it anyway.

I’m using MLB’s brilliant MLB.tv service: for $125 for the season, you can stream, in high definition, any live baseball game. It’s a fantastic service; it does exactly what it says on the tin. But it comes with a giant asterisk: owing to the existing agreements that MLB has with local cable operators, your local team – most certainly your team – will be under blackout. It’s a total deal-killer for me; I want to watch the Jays, goddammit!

Cutting my cable a few months back was an easy decision: we literally watched zero hours of the thing, but baseball season would be the biggest challenge. With the season opener a few days ago, my “challenge” turned into desperation. Let’s describe the ways to get around the system.

On the Mac On your computer, you watch games by visiting MLB.tv. Once you’ve purchased the service, you simply log in and pick a game. A player window will open and the video will start to buffer (and it requires Flash, I’m afraid). It’s during this time that the service checks whether you’re in a blackout zone. On the computer it does this by looking at your IP address; these addresses are tied to general geographic regions, so it can accurately locate you to the city level. Therefore, to circumvent this check, you have to appear to be coming from a different IP.

Most people confronted with this problem rely on a proxy server: it’s a machine located somewhere on the net which makes requests on your behalf, forwarding traffic to you. There are services that list open proxy servers, but they are almost uniformly crappy: even if they’re actually available, they are slow and unreliable. You’ll be spending the entire game shuffling between different proxies.

Instead, I’ve engaged the services of a commercial Virtual Private Network. A VPN can be configured on your computer’s network control panel: on the Mac, it’s a simple few steps in System Preferences. Once configured, this VPN interface is like connecting your Mac transparently to another network, and the traffic between you and that network is a secure, encrypted tunnel.

The effect is that you’ll be appearing on the Internet as if you were on the VPN’s network. And if that network is located in the US, then so are you.

With the VPN connection running, you can load up MLB.tv and start watching some sweet sweet Blue Jays baseball.

I’m using StrongVPN.com. They charge $7 a month. You can choose a server in different regions in the US, though closer is better. I’m currently on a New York server, but I’ll have to switch that when we start beating on the Yankees. That plan includes unlimited data throughput, so streaming HD video for 20 games a month is no sweat (and shouldn’t be a problem for my TekSavvy Internet with its generous caps). I’ve watched two games now using the service, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

On iOS The MLB At Bat app for iPhone and iPad is a dream come true for baseball fans. If you buy the $125 season pass, you get the apps for free; otherwise a $15 in app purchase will get you the ability to stream the radio broadcast for any game, without blackout restriction. That’s how I started the season myself, thinking that would suffice.

Now, you can setup a VPN connection on iOS, but it won’t net you much: the MLB app doesn’t use your IP address to check your location. Instead it uses the device’s Location Service, which uses a combination of the GPS radio (if it has one), wireless network and IP address geolocation. If you turn off Location Service, then you can’t watch video.

The only way out is to jailbreak your iPad, and install an app called Location Spoofer. This lets you control, on a per-app basis, the location that it will report. So can pick out the MLB app, and tell it that you’re located in London, England. Why not? You’ll be subject to no blackouts, ever, and you’ll experience no delay in getting the bits, because your request isn’t going through an intermediate network.

To my mind, getting it working on the iPad only would be the best answer. It’s great to have baseball on my big-screen TV connected to my Mac mini, but nothing beats the convenience of having it on my iPad, and it would save me $7 a month.

Right now, that option isn’t open to me, because I can’t jailbreak my iPad yet; it’s simply not available for the iPad 2 running iOS 5.1. Once that jailbreak becomes available I’ll be all over it.

IM IN UR BASEBALLZ WATCHIN UR BITZ I couldn’t be more pleased to be able to watch the Jays over the Internet. But is it wrong? I don’t know. I’m paying Major League Baseball, so I’m not exactly stealing anything. But I’m circumventing their agreements with my local cable provider, with whom I am not a customer.

Given the complexity of the solutions here, I don’t see the blackout circumvention as a rampant problem, and it’s been available long enough that I don’t doubt these companies are aware of it. I could watch Hulu now, I suppose, and get Pandora, if I cared about these things.

But I figure, if I’m paying the money, I’m going to sleep at night. I hope this helps you too.