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MLB TV review: Is it worth the subscription during a shortened season? – CNET

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As a Cincinnati Reds fan living in New England, I’ve been a subscriber to MLB.TV, Major League Baseball’s paid streaming service, for years. And in this most unusual and terrible year, watching and listening to Reds games for the past week has brought a bit of normalcy back to my summer. But with the prospects of completing the shortened 60-game season in doubt after COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple teams, the resulting postponements and a warning from the commissioner about a potential cancellation of the season, it’s difficult to recommend a new MLB.TV subscription for even the most ardent baseball fan right now — especially with no clear refund policy to protect your investment.

  • Wide device support
  • Easy access to in-game stats
  • Choose your own audio feed
  • Smooth streaming
  • No refund policy for new subscribers
  • Higher per-game cost in 2020
  • Blackout restrictions can be frustrating

If baseball was able to play its usual six-month, 162-game season, the bill for MLB.TV would have been $122. For the shortened season this year, it costs $60 for new subscribers. That’s a buck a game, or a third more than the 75 cents you’d pay per game in a normal year. Pricing gouging during a pandemic is never a good look.

The service charges more per game in 2020’s shortened season than in previous years.
MLB.com

A month-to-month subscription at $25 per month is a better deal at this point in early August, because two payments of $50 total will take you through the end of the regular season (and you can cancel after the first month if the season goes kaput). A single-team yearly subscription costs $50 this year too, but I like the flexibility of the full-league subscriptions because I can switch over to a no-hitter in progress or watch a late-night West Coast game.

For returning subscribers, you’ll pay the usual per-game rate — $45.18 for the shortened season after receiving a refund or credit towards next year of $76.81.

The biggest issue in 2020 is MLB.TV’s shocking lack of a clear refund policy in the event of a season cancellation. MLB.TV details its refund policy on its site for returning subscribers who autorenewed earlier this year, but it has no policy to protect this season’s new subscribers. If you cancel your subscription, the current policy states “There are no refunds for partial months or unused portions of annual subscriptions.”

When I called customer service to ask if I would get my $60 back should the season be canceled, I was told I’d have to check back if and when such an event happened. I also asked if I could get a refund if the Reds had an outbreak and I wanted to cancel my subscription because they would miss a week or so of games in an already abbreviated season. MLB’s answer? There would be no refund for me if the season continued without my team.

MLB’s press office did not return a call requesting additional information.

mlbtv-audio-feed
The ability to choose my audio feed is one of my favorite features.
MLB/screenshot by Matt Elliott

Prepare for blackouts

The aforementioned subscription lets you watch every out-of-market regular season game that’s not blacked out. Games that are broadcast nationally on ESPN, Fox, FS1, MLB Network and TBS are blacked out on MLB.TV, which can be terribly disappointing when you attempt to tune into a game and are greeted with the blackout restriction notice.

Games of the team in your local market are also blacked out. As a resident of New England, for example, I cannot watch Boston Red Sox games on MLB.TV. Since the Reds are a small market team that have not had much success in recent years, they are not picked for national broadcasts with any frequency. I’d imagine the blackout restriction is much more frustrating to out-of-market Red Sox and Yankees fans, since their teams are shown regularly on ESPN and other national broadcasts.

Those blackout restrictions mean an MLB TV subscription is basically just for big out-of-market fans like me who can’t watch their favorite teams in-market, or for hardcore baseball fans in general for whom those local and national broadcasts aren’t enough. Were I not a subscriber to MLB.TV, I would need to subsist all summer long on box scores, highlights and the rare Reds national broadcast to follow my team.

mlbtv-catch-up-apple-tv
The Apple TV app has a cool catch-up feature.
MLB/screenshot by Matt Elliott

Watch (and listen) on just about any device

No matter how big a fan I am or how much I enjoy streaming games on MLB.TV, I have neither the time nor the inclination to watch nine innings of baseball every night, even during a pandemic that sees me spending even more time at home. My favorite part about MLB.TV is its wide device support that lets me catch parts of a game while I go about my day and evening.

I watch a few innings on the iPad in the kitchen while making dinner and a few more innings after dinner on my laptop when my son is playing on my iPad. And perhaps the last few outs on the big screen via my Apple TV. And when I can’t watch, I listen to the Reds’ radio call when I take the dog out for her evening stroll or during weekend yard work, which just so happens to coincide with Sunday day games.

The MLB.TV is available on a slew of devices, from phones and tablets to computers and game consoles to streaming boxes and smart TVs. Here’s the full list:

  • Mac and Windows PCs
  • iOS and Android phones and tablets
  • Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Chromecast streaming devices
  • PS4 and Xbox One game consoles
  • Samsung smart TVs

You can get more details, including system requirements and specifics on supported models, on this MLB.com support page.

I tested MLB.TV on the devices I usually use to watch games: iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro and Apple TV. I also checked out MLB.TV on my Roku TV.

mlbtv-stat-overlays-ipad
Stat overlays work well on the roomy iPad screen.
MLB/screenshot by Matt Elliott

Stat overlays and radio feeds

My preferred device for watching MLB.TV is the iPad. All devices give you access to stat overlays, but the iPad’s implementation is best. Swipe from the left edge and you can see a pitch-by-pitch summary of the game. Swipe from the right edge for the box score. A two-finger tap brings up both info panels along with scores of all the games along the top edge and a game-status panel along the bottom edge.

You get similar overlays on a phone, but there’s only two and the box score panel that slides up from the bottom edge blocks most of the screen. On an iPad, you can call up all four panels and can still see most of the game going on in the middle of the screen.

MLB.TV lets you watch the home or away video feed so you can listen to your team’s announcers. And should you prefer your team’s radio announcers to the TV announcers, you can change the audio feed so you can listen to the radio call while still watching the video stream.

Watching MLB.TV on an Apple TV has a benefit not offered on my other devices, including Roku. On the Apple TV, when you tune into a game in progress, you are given three options: Catch Up, Start from Beginning and Watch Live. The last two are self-explanatory, and the first is the option I usually select. It gives you 90 seconds of highlights from the action you missed before taking you to the live feed. On Roku, you are given a Jump to Inning option instead of Catch Up, which isn’t as useful as watching a quick succession of highlights before getting right to live action.

On all my devices and using both wired and wireless network connections, games streamed smoothly. They occasionally get choppy when on Wi-Fi, but such instances lasted only a few seconds or a minute at most before returning to HD clarity. A few seasons ago, I would avoid watching on my Apple TV because the video quality looked poor when displayed on my HDTV, but now streaming games on MLB.TV on my TV look no different than watching a game on ESPN on my TV via YouTube TV.

mlbtv-highlights
Highlights galore are available in the app.
MLB/screenshot by Matt Elliott

Ad-free highlights, repetitive ads during games

When I miss a game, I can watch a highlight package on MLB.TV the next morning or a slightly longer condensed game. Each shows plays from the game without additional commentary; you hear the call from either the home or away announcer. There is also a collection of individual highlights you can fire up to see the big hits and outstanding defensive plays.

When watching highlights, as a subscriber you do not need to sit through ads. The highlights play immediately, letting you jump from one to another without the fear of an ad inserting itself in the middle of your review of the previous night’s game. Individual highlights are also available during a live game on about an inning-or-so delay.

You will see ads during the usual commercial breaks between innings and during pitching changes of live games, and they will get repetitive. After the first week of the season, I’ve already seen the Blue Emu ad featuring Johnny Bench enough times to last a full 162-game season of Reds games. The same can be said for Wendy’s two-for-$5 chicken sandwich ad.

Recommendation? Save your $60 in 2020

My advice to fans on the fence about paying for MLB.TV this year is the same a manager would tell a hitter when facing a pitcher who is struggling to throw strikes: Take a pitch. See a strike. Work the count. Without a guarantee you’ll get your money back, paying $60 for MLB.TV right now is a risk. Baseball seems to be one more sizable COVID-19 outbreak from needing to shut down the season. And even if that nightmare scenario does not become a reality, there’s no guarantee the team you are paying to see won’t have a portion of its season wiped out.

If you are starved for live sports, spend your time watching the NBA from its bubble, the MLS tournament from its bubble or the NHL from its hub cities, which are safer ways of resuming a season than having teams travel around the country the way MLB is doing.

If you must have MLB.TV this year, however, the best option is going month-to-month at $25 per month. It’s $50 total for the whole season now or, if you can wait until September (and if MLB is still playing baseball games then) you can pay only $25 to watch the stretch run over the final month of the season. Given the uncertainty of MLB being able to finish the season after the numerous COVID-19 outbreaks occurring across the Major Leagues, and the shocking absence of a refund policy, it’s prudent to be patient at the plate.

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