The Cruel Case of Canadian Baseball Fandom

This is Ashley’s first post as a FanGraphs contributor. Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who’s On Worst.

There is no magic quite like that of Opening Day. It’s hard to explain the sensation of being part of a crowd of like-minded baseball fans, brimming with enthusiasm over the return of the game after a long, cold winter. It will make otherwise rational people gather en masse in 20-degree weather in the hopes of seeing their beloved team get the first win of the long 162-game season.

It’s a unique level of fervor, one that draws us like moths to the porch light that is the ballpark.

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, though, it has been two years of Opening Days without baseball close to home, and the absence of their team north of the border has at times made it difficult to feel connected to the sport they love. To make it worse, blackout restrictions and the elimination of a dedicated Blue Jays radio broadcast (the audio from the television broadcast will be simulcast to radio listeners) have further limited access to the only Canadian major league team.

The gap begins at home for fans, many of whom make a pilgrimage to downtown Toronto for games, a place they rarely make an effort to visit without the draw of a game. “Opening Day to me and many others means returning to a part of the city that we don’t visit very often,” says Jays fan Sean DeCory. “I do miss the excitement of getting on the subway and slowly seeing it fill with fans in blue and white.”

The Jays announced this spring that owing to travel restrictions entering Canada that would require prohibitively long quarantines, the team would continue to play out of their spring home in Dunedin, Florida. This relocation will last through at least their third homestand, ending May 24. The team insists “the primary goal remains returning to play on Canadian soil as soon as it is safe to do so.” However, that timeline remains uncertain.

And for Jays fans living in Canada, the team not playing at home does nothing to change regional blackout restrictions. Rogers, a major Canadian telecom company, has a stranglehold on Jays broadcasts across the country. This means regardless of where you live in Canada, from Victoria, BC to St. John’s, Newfoundland, you cannot watch a Jays game if you rely on a streaming service like MLB.TV. Unless you have a cable package through Rogers, or Sportsnet, you cannot watch Jays games, at least not legally.

For cord-cutters, this reality provided mounting frustration during the spring. “Having them reinstate the blackouts on the MLB app in Canada has been a huge blow for me, not just as a Blue Jays fan but a baseball fan,” says DeCory. Another fan, who has Rogers cable, understands the frustration of other fans. “It is incredibly disappointing to find out that other Jays fans are unable to watch the game because of blackout restrictions or other ridiculous reasons that could be easily fixable by MLB or Rogers,” says Alyssa Cohen.

What’s more troubling about these prohibitions is that Sportsnet has also decided to discontinue Jays radio broadcasts for the 2021 season, relying instead only on television audio. Anyone who has ever listened to a radio broadcast knows it’s an entirely different medium to master, and cannot merely be replaced by an audio feed from TV, which relies largely on the expectation the audience can watch along.

“The fact that that option is unavailable for the entirety of this season is a travesty,” laments Cohen. For DeCory, a big part of the loss was the history of those broadcasts, “We have such a rich tradition of great radio hosts, from Tom Cheek to Jerry Howarth to Mike Wilner and Ben Wagner. It is sad to see that connection to the past go.”

A.J. Andrews, another Jays fan, pointed out that radio was often the only option for those outside of easy cable access. “Not having dedicated radio broadcasts is a mistake. I’m not sure if it’s due to travel restrictions or just penny-pinching, but TV broadcasts do not equal radio broadcasts.”

For Canadian fans, the restrictions can mean almost no options to watch or listen to Jays games, unless they’re willing to adopt a new cable package or pursue wayward streams. For Canadian fans of other teams, it creates unusual scheduling gaps whenever their favorite team plays the Toronto club. It’s a complaint echoed across the US as well, where unusual blackout restrictions can make it all but impossible for fans to watch their beloved clubs in action. Iowa, perhaps the only locale with more cause for complaint than Canada, has no major league club located in the state. Yet they are restricted from watching the Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Twins, Royals, and Cardinals.

For an entire country to be hamstrung from watching the only Canadian team play baseball is a baffling move. For a sport that wants to capture a new audience and continue to grow, barring Canadian fans from watching Jays games seems counterintuitive.

Baseball has the potential to be as much a part of the Canadian landscape as it is in the US. A 2017 poll by Maclean – a part of The Canada Project – asked Canadians which sports they watched growing up. Eight percent watched the game in their youth, and that number didn’t change as they grew up, indicating that an attachment to the sport remained consistent even over a long period. Nine percent of millennials polled for the study said they watched baseball, a number that might seem small at first glance, but actually makes it the third most popular sport of the youngest generation included in the poll, behind only hockey and soccer.

There is an appetite for baseball in Canada, a market to be further developed and expanded upon. But to limit access to the game on such a broad level does nothing to serve existing fans, nor to cultivate new ones.

It’s a difficult thing, to be a Canadian baseball fan. Without television, radio, or in-person games, 2021 seems likely to only make it more so. This feels like an especially foolhardy move given how incredibly exciting the immediate future of the Jays seems to be, with the offseason additions of George Springer and Marcus Semien, and the young core of exceptional talent in Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio, names that appeal both to new fans, and those who remember watching their fathers play.

If MLB truly wants to expand its market, looking north seems like a great place to start.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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1 year ago

Good article. The Jays are my AL team and are very exciting this year. Over the weekend I listened to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman on the MLB app rather than a TV feed over audio.