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The cheapest way to watch baseball online

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
St. Louis Cardinals’ Dexter Fowler, left, scores past Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras during the third inning of a baseball game Sunday, April 2, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)s

The 2017 Major League Baseball season will feature something that once seemed utterly implausible — no, not just the Chicago Cubs raising a new World Series championship flag at Wrigley Field.

This year, baseball fans who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV services will finally be able to stream their teams’ games through one of the cheapest video services around, Sling TV, without having to resort to illegal workarounds.

It may not be as big of a deal as ending a 108-year championship drought, but it still represents a massive shift in how fans watch their beloved pastime.

Online video gets on base

This newfound online access comes from Sling adding Comcast regional sports networks to its sports lineup that carry Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants games.

Sling also now offers a raft of Fox regional sports networks covering the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.

If the Zip code associated with your credit card is close enough to those cities — Sling TV did not define that limit, saying it would be up to each network — you’ll get access to your favorite team’s games with the $25 per month Sling Blue package.

The Sling TV app for Apple TV.

There’s one major catch though. The app can detect when you’re not in your home area and will automatically cut off access to your local sports network when you’re out of range.

Two other online-TV options, the DirecTV Now service AT&T (T) launched last fall and the PlayStation Vue offering from Sony (SNE), also carry Comcast (CMCSA) and Fox regional sports networks, but they cost more. DirecTV Now reserves them for its $50 and up monthly plans, while watching your team’s network through Playstation Vue will cost you is $35 to $45.

Vue is, however, the only online option for local Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies fans.

None of these services charge extra monthly fees for a tuner box, unlike cable or satellite providers. A phone, tablet or a streaming-media player plugged into a TV is enough.

Baseball’s history of brushback pitches

Until recently, baseball’s response to fans anxious to watch their home team’s games online was that they should go back to a cable or satellite provider.

Baseball has long had a great video service in MLB.tv, but that maintains regional blackouts that restrict your ability to watch your local team’s games online.

The idea was to protect the pay-TV business of regional sports networks that had paid a premium to carry a those team’s games. But these overlapping blackout areas can span thousands of miles. If you live in Des Moines or Honolulu, MLB.tv cuts you off from five teams.

A deal announced at the start of last year allowed in-market viewing of 25 teams’ games — but at a $10 surcharge above the regular MLB.tv rate, and with a requirement that you also keep a pay-TV bundle including that regional sports network.

What’s changed? MLB Advanced Media, the subsidiary behind MLB.tv, did not respond to questions asking why, but you can’t ignore the growing numbers of people who have dropped cable and satellite TV subscriptions.

A study released last week by SNL Kagan, a subsidiary of S&P Global (SPGI), found that 13% of American households now subscribe to broadband but not a traditional pay TV bundle.

A lot of ballgame left to play

As impressive as that list of sports networks now available online may be, it still leaves out some major exceptions.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and their pricey SportsNet LA network — many pay-TV services around L.A. still don’t carry it — remain unavailable at Sling, DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue. So do the networks of the Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals.

Seeing the Nationals on that list is a source of personal frustration. They’re my team, and during their first season in D.C., MLB.tv had the sense to lift regional blackouts for Nationals games when so few pay-TV services carried the new Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

MASN spokesman David Lee confirmed that no in-market streaming exists and had no forecast for progress. That looked bad enough in 2009; in 2017, it’s almost as irritating as baseball changing the intentional-walk rule.

Some frustrated viewers will resort to technical countermeasures like proxy servers that spoof MLB.tv into thinking they’re hundreds of miles away. Others — like, perhaps, the T-Mobile (TMUS) subscribers who will get a free subscription to MLB.tv on Tuesday — will see they’re shut out, then click or tap elsewhere in frustration.

I may have to express my frustration by going to a bunch of Nats games and paying too much for a Ben’s Chili Bowl half smoke and a DC Brau pale ale. That will totally show them, right?

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.