July 7 2015 04:39 PM

Legacy businesses, like MLB, can't harness control forever

Photo by Andrew Wiseman / Flickr

One of the most hallowed but overused and misapplied words in the world of technology is "disruption." Everybody says they're looking to embrace the latest "disruptive" technology to change their business. But the bigger the organization, the less that's true. Most of The Establishment doesn't really want disruption, because when true disruption occurs, it upsets the balance of economic power and control. If you're on top, disruption is very scary. 

That's because a disruptive innovation or technology, by definition (or Wikipedia's definition, at least), creates a new market or value network that challenges and often replaces an established market or value network. That's not very popular when you're the established market or value network. Or, as one San Diego politician admitted to me in a moment of candor, "We want disruption we can manage."

Of course, "managed disruption" is an oxymoron. When you manage something, you control it. When you control something, it's not actually being disruptive. Probably the biggest disruptive technology has been the iPod, which nearly single-handedly destroyed the music industry's stranglehold on consumer consumption of music. Netflix is another, and has done it twice—first destroying rental chains like Blockbuster and its ilk, now taking on the broadcast model of television itself. 

You don't have to look far across San Diego to find frustrating examples of this. Because, even as the San Diego Padres are now at least available across a much wider variety of cable and satellite television choices, you still can't stream games if you're a cord cutter (eschew cable service). 

It's no secret that the only thing stemming a mass exodus from the traditional television model is live sports, and the Padres' MLB agreement with Fox Sports South is just absurd (in a fan-friendly sense) in its draconian limits for 21st century viewership. It's not fair to single out the Padres and FSS, though. No matter what city you live in, if you cut your cable or satellite service, there is literally no way legally to watch your home baseball team. Unlike the NFL, which requires home games be broadcast on an over-the-air channel like CBS or FOX, baseball strikes individual contracts with regional sports networks, which then sign separate contracts with the cable and satellite providers, where the most brutal of blackout rules apply. 

That means even if you subscribe to MLB.tv, the streaming app that promises you access to every baseball game being played daily, the reality is that you're getting every game but one: The Padres game. There is not even an option to pay extra to see local games. "I don't know how you can be a Padres fan in San Diego—or a Dodgers fan in L.A., or a Yankees or Mets fan in New York—and cut the cord," laments Dexter Bustarde, co-founder and editor of Padres blog Gaslamp Ball. Ironically, he notes, "It's probably harder and more costly to block the game with firewalls and ISP checks," than it would be if the games were made more widely available.

Everybody knows the blackout rule is ridiculous, so nobody likes to talk about it. No one from the Padres would talk to me on the record, and the best I got from MLB.tv was a "We continue to have regular conversations and are hopeful to have a resolution soon," from an affable spokesperson.

Don't count on it. As Bustarde points out, "The sports leagues know who butters their bread, and right now it's still the cable companies."

The thing is, of course, genuinely disruptive technology doesn't wait around for the "dinosaur deals," as Bustarde called them, to either expire or get with the program. There are numerous pieces of cheap or free clandestine software that will mask your location to MLB.tv and allow you to stream Padres games. 

We don't necessarily recommend doing that—it's against the law—but it's worth mentioning as an emblematic example of truly disruptive technology, and an unsettling harbinger for those legacy businesses that try to harness or control it: You can't.

So it's gratifying to see an organization like the San Diego International Airport admit that. When I was originally putting this column together, the centerpiece of the article was the absurd situation at our airport, where genuinely disruptive ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber were still not welcome for arriving fliers.

But on July 1, the airport announced it had reached agreeable terms with the two popular mobile application transportation companies, just in time for Comic-Con, when you would think there would be no shortage of connected-generation riders looking for a cheaper trip than the confiscatory cabal of taxis that until now maintained a near-monopoly. 

So two cheers for the San Diego International Airport and an embrace of disruption! Even if it meant I had to disrupt my Fourth of July holiday to make sure I got the facts right. But maybe there's something appropriately patriotic about that.


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