ESPN Drives Football Fans Crazy With Arbitrary HD Blackouts

Once you become addicted to watching football in HD, it’s tough to go back to standard definition. And when you realize that people in other parts of the country are getting to watch the game in dazzling HD while you suffer through your grainy, small-screen 1985 version thanks to a nonsensical decision by ESPN, it’s darn near maddening.

Take a look at Matt, who is furious ESPN stuck him with an HD blackout of sorts by not showing a game he wanted to see on ESPN’s HD channel:

I write to you today as an angry college football fan fed up with ESPN. I don’t know how long ESPN has been doing this, so I may have missed the boat a long time ago, but I discovered today that certain regions of the country are subject to what I would refer to as an “HD Blackout” of certain games the network broadcasts.

Today, I watched the 11am CST game (Minnesota-Northwestern) in High Definition on ESPNHD. Where I am located, the following game at 2:30pm CST was to be Texas-Oklahoma, a game I also wished to watch in HD. However, ESPN decided that viewers in my part of the country would not be allowed to watch that game in HD.

At the time of kickoff for the Texas-Oklahoma game, the programming on ESPNHD was switched and ESPNEWS HD was instead broadcast. (ESPNEWS HD is a CNN-style sports news channel that does not broadcast games, only highlights and brief look-ins for a number of different games.) The Texas-Oklahoma game was available in my area, but only on the standard definition ESPN channel. This was not an error by my cable provider. ESPN shows this choice on the coverage maps buried on their website (which can only be found by using the site’s search), but makes no mention anywhere else that I can find.

I first attempted to contact ESPN through the live assistance chat feature for questions and complaints on their website. Although indicated that operators were online, my questions were met each time with the response of “Sorry, no agents were available to answer your question”.

Since no telephone number can be easily found on the ESPN website, I called my cable provider to lodge a complaint. The rep at my cable provider correctly indicated that this particular complaint was in regards to ESPN programming, which the cable provider has no control over. She quickly gave me the telephone number for ESPN customer service.

I then called the ESPN customer service line to ask why they would choose to block certain areas of the country only from receiving the HD broadcast of the game, but could not get a straight answer. The rep acknowledged that it was a decision made by ESPN, but would not offer any explanation, only referring me to speak with my cable provider. I emphasized multiple times that my cable provider doesn’t make programming decisions for ESPN. The rep then said that I could just watch the game on the standard definition ESPN channel. I replied that I didn’t want to watch it on the standard def channel; I purchased an HDTV and HD cable service to watch programming in HD, not standard def. The rep would only answer that he could see what I was saying, but that the only thing he could tell me was I should to talk to my cable provider.

Personally, this is the last straw for me with ESPN. I’ve been turned off by their programming more and more the last few years and this experience put the nail in the coffin for me. I love college football, but I’m tired of this garbage. Unfortunately, I can’t simply cancel ESPN from my cable package to cut off my support of this network and ESPN would still receive money from me through my cable subscription fees even if I stopped watching. Therefore, I’ll be canceling my cable service completely when my local branch opens Monday morning.

If you’ve been HD-blocked by ESPN, share your horror stories.


Edit Your Comment

  1. Alvis says:

    Well, can’t say I understand getting all up-in-arms over non-HD sports of all things, but good for not taking any crap. Plenty of HD sports on broadcast TV over-the-air.

    • kc2idf says:

      That is fine; if you are happy with SD, then there is no reason you would need to understand. My wife doesn’t get it, and that’s fine. I respect your position in not getting it.

      …but for those of us who do get it, and love it, and are willing to pay extra for it (as this guy was and did), we want our HD. I paid for a 2Mpx wide-screen picture, not a 300kpx narrow screen picture, or worse, a wide screen picture that has been padded out to 300kpx, leaving only 230kpx actually in use.

      I don’t do sports, but if I bought something because I wanted it, then I’d damned well better get what I bought.

      • coffeeculture says:

        It is maddening, I’d be pissed. Going from HD to SD for sports is pretty much like turning on TV for your favorite show and only hearing the audio. SD is damn near unwatchable.

    • rorschachex says:

      Absolutely. I haven’t had cable in about a year now, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t catch any MNF Giants games. Lo-and-behold, since I live in NYC, My9 has been showing the MNF Giants games; in glorious HD to boot.

  2. hewhoroams says:

    This happened to me this weekend and I was pissed! I live about 20 miles from Ann Arbor MI and wanted to watch the U of M game.
    Nope! The station was simply a black screen! Couldn’t even get it on the SD ESPN. Apparently it could be viewed on ESPNU, but i guess you need the sports pack to view that channel (which no one if their right mind owns, its awful).

    I was extremely fortunate to have the MSU game on ABC, and also doubly fortunate to be an MSU alum instead of a Wolverine.

    • dienstbier says:

      “ESPNU, but i guess you need the sports pack to view that channel (which no one if their right mind owns, its awful).”

      Well, if you want to see the games that are broadcast on the channel, you can be in your right mind and still get it. You don’t have to watch anything ELSE on it.

    • Gulliver says:

      I watched the UM game on ESPNU with my DirectV package in HD. ESPN chooses games in priority base don what they think will get the best ratings. They also have to take into account what the Big Ten Network wants. If you lived in Texas or Oklahoma, you would have seen the game in HD on your local. If you lived in Michigan, you would see a game in HD that the local carier WXYZ TV decided to carry. If you paid for the extra package you would receive them all in high def.
      The OP has no understanding of how the broadcasting works, and instead wants to get something he thinks he is entitled to without paying.

    • leprechaunshawn says:

      Ann Arbor is a slut!

    • bizzarodave says:

      I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’ve been without cable for about 2 and a half years now I think. I certainly miss games like Michigan – Indiana, but all of the major Michigan games end up on ABC, and the smaller games I can listen to through the radio. Sure I’d rather watch them all on TV, but I think about the the roughly $1000 a year I’ve saved, and I enjoy the radio call just a little more.

      Can’t wait for the game against Little Brother this week, it’ll be fun (and on ABC!)

  3. RubiksDude says:

    ESPN has also started refusing to sell rights to local stations to broadcast their local team’s away games. Instead they have ESPN3 exclusives, and you just have to hope that your internet provider has access to ESPN3. ESPN seems to be making a bunch of boneheaded decisions about their broadcasting as of late.

  4. ajlei says:

    All I can say is that every year, University of Oregon and Oregon State have a Civil War game (which I just recently discovered is still sort of an offensive term for some parts of the country — guess we’re sheltered up here in the PacNW) and if that shit wasn’t aired or blacked out, pretty much the entire state would freak out. Thankfully, I think(?) they air it on network channels instead of ESPN.

  5. TuxthePenguin says:

    I’m a bit confused. I’ve never really checked, but could ESPN turn off the HD broadcast if a local over-the-air station is broadcasting the game? That might make some sense…

  6. sufreak says:

    This is why I am thankful to not be a major sports TV fan. Everyone asks how I can go cable free. What about sports?

    Haha..easy enough.

    But, in this case..this sucks. I guess they allocate HD bandwidth to resources by fan coverage? Maybe not.

    • tbax929 says:

      You don’t need cable to watch sports. I’m a Philly fan living in Arizona without the NFL package, yet I manage to see every Eagles game online. Of course, the way they played yesterday makes me think I won’t be watching many more this season!

  7. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Sports channels: you [don’t] get what you pay for.

  8. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    Yep, I never watched espn when I had it, but my monthly bill supported them. Too bad NOBODY has the choice to cancel ESPN without canceling pay TV entirely. The HD blackout makes no sense whatsoever.

    So, now you’ll be without TV unless you follow millions of others in getting free TV. Cut the cable, put up an antenna, and feel the power of free HD TV for life, and a fattened wallet.

    Google “how to get broadcast tv without cable” you’ll find plenty of info. It should cost you less than 1 months cable bill to put up an antenna – using the cable co’s wiring already in your house!

  9. ClaudeKabobbing says:

    Enough people start canceling their cable service because or poor customer service or expierences, they maybe these companies will get better.

  10. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    Sports programming has never been the same since the loss of The Ocho.

  11. Kid U says:

    I had the same problem this weekend for a different set of games. For the Saturday 8 PM slate of games, ABC/ESPN2 were showing 3 games; Oregon-Stanford (2nd best game of the week in all of college football), Boston College-Notre Dame (horrible game), and USC-Washington (below average game). In the DC Metro area we were subjected to the worst game of the three (BC-ND) on ABC HD, the middling game (USC-WSH) on ESPN2 HD, and the best game by a mile (ORE-STAN) on ESPN2 Standard Definition. The DC Metro has ZERO regional ties to any of the 6 teams involved; why did we get the crap games in HD and the great game in SD?

  12. Sword_Chucks says:

    This reminds me of the time the UGA v someotherteam game was blacked out in Georgia except for PPV. My brother, wanting to watch the game in Georgia, noticed I, in Illinois, was not blacked out via ESPN360. So I opened the stream and then shared my screen with screen sharing. Impractical, but, they still got what they wanted.

  13. ConsumerDollars says:

    I’m just thankful that since I only get free OTA HD that my local station (ABC affiliate) is purchasing the rights to air the Patriots/Dolphins MNF game tonight! In HD!

    • snobum says:

      All NFL games that are only shown on cable only are broadcast on another network in the home markets

      • jason in boston says:

        Indeed – now if I could only find a way on getting Bruins / Redsox without having to pay for NESN. $100 a month is not worth it for me to only watch 1 channel.

  14. balthisar says:

    Oh, I’m just ticked at the Fox vs. Dish mess that made me unable to watch the Red Wings yesterday via my Slingbox. At least I got to see the Lions lose versus Green Bay.

  15. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    The maps you referred to said it was shown on ABC in HD, and ABC (which is part of the same family as ESPN, but let’s face it, it is a completely different distribution setup) didn’t carry it in your market. They made it available on ESPN, but the HD channel carried the news to avoid duplicating ABC’s coverage in the other markets.

    On the other hand I can still understand why it sucks.

    • ShruggingGalt says:

      Yep, that’s what happened.

      I noticed that it was being shown on ABC but using the ESPN logo.

      • paul says:

        All sports on ABC are branded as ESPN. (This happened around the time Monday Night Football moved to ESPN)

  16. danmac says:

    If I paid a premium for an HD receiver and an HD cable package, I would also be upset at not getting to watch the game in HD if it’s available elsewhere. People who don’t watch sports may be unsympathetic to the OP’s gripe, but sports is one media where HD makes a significant difference in the quality of the viewing experience.

    I’m glad that the OP voiced his unhappiness with ESPN…if enough people speak out, sometimes change is possible.

  17. ampsonic says:

    I was trying to watch that same game, and had the same problem. I just gave up, I didn’t understand why I was getting ESPN news on my ESPN HD Channel. I never thought to check the SD channel.

  18. pop top says:

    FYI, the new XBox Live preview that I’m on has an ESPN section that allows you to stream live sports over your 360. This will be great for the people who say, “I’d cancel my entire cable package if not for wanting to watch sports.” This makes me, a college football fan without cable, very happy.

    • OrtizDupri says:

      You have to have cable to use it. It’s basically just a front end for ESPN3 (formerly ESPN360).

      • pop top says:

        Where does it say that? I don’t have cable and the service works just fine for me.

      • MSUHitman says:

        You just have to have a provider that “supports it” ie pays ESPN for it. I have ATT DSL and it works fine. Also works on Verizon DSL or FIOS.

        All of the major players except Time Warner and Cablevision support it. According to Microsoft’s Major Nelson (XBox’s ombudsman if you will) Time Warner is going to be adding it soon, mainly because of pressure from XBox owners with Time Warner/Microsoft.

  19. TVGenius says:

    Odds are it has to do with their capacity to backhaul the HD feeds to Bristol and then distribute the multiple HD feeds out to cable companies. This was an issue for the networks carrying the NFL in the early years of HD as well, as when you’re producing four or more games simultaneously, that takes up a lot of satellite and fiber to move those signals around. It’s a tradeoff for having multiple choices available, and probably won’t be an issue in another year or two as the cost of doing HD keeps getting less.

  20. DanRydell says:

    Though we don’t know why ESPN chose to do this, it’s definitely not an arbitrary decision.

    My guess is the Big 10 had something to do with it.

    • GMFish says:

      Instead of it being an arbitrary decision by ESPN, you’re saying it was an arbitrary decision made by the Big 10. That’s not really an explanation.

      • DanRydell says:

        When did I say it was an arbitrary decision by the Big 10? Do you know what arbitrary means? There was surely a reason for it, and the reason was most likely money.

      • zxo says:

        The affected game was between non-Big 10 teams, and was airing opposite a Big 10 game. Not hard to see why they might want to quash the HD version.

        That said, I doubt if the Big 10 has *that* much sway over ESPN.

  21. falnfenix says:

    things like this make me happy all Baltimore games are broadcast OTA here…in HD, even.

  22. txhoudini says:

    The Consumerist could do a huge write up on all the different sports and how messed up their TV broadcast contracts are. Baseball IMHO is the worst.

    • danmac says:

      Football is pretty bad, too. I love how the black out local games if the stadium doesn’t sell out. That little policy has made it impossible for Raiders fans to watch home games for a long time. Hell, even their home opener was blacked out this year.

      • Gulliver says:

        It is not impossible to watch the games. You can purchase a ticket and watch it anytime you want. Where is there some “right” to view a football game? If Oakland fans can not support a football team in person, then why should they allow it to be broadcast for free over the air?

  23. brianisthegreatest says:

    Ah, the never truly satisfying packages required for cable tv. Given that HD is a big marketing trend with these companies, I find it a bit absurd they would do such a thing. Luckily I’m not a sports fan and this doesn’t effect me, but I’m sure other channels are not safe from this practice. More on demand and live streaming options need to start happening. This is a perfect example of why this style of tv is bad, and how you get what you get really shouldn’t be how it is anymore. We should get what we pay for in regards to tv, and I think digital distribution makes big steps towards that.

  24. GMFish says:

  25. BStu78 says:

    Do we know if there were even HD cameras at that game? Maybe they didn’t black it out so much as they were never intending to an HD broadcast of that game. I know many networks would just air the SD feed on the HD channel but maybe ESPN has decided not to do that. I know they recently converted some talk shows to HD. Maybe the current edict is that HD channels get HD content only. If the programming isn’t in HD, they switch to ESPN News. If that’s the case, the OP missed out on nothing.

    • fatediesel says:

      Yes, there were HD cameras at the game, as it was shown in HD to most of the country. Big 10 country got the Michigan State-Wisconsin game, and some of the southeast got Virginia Tech-North Carolina State. The areas where the Texas game was on ABC HD got the Michigan State game on ESPN HD, but the areas where ABC showed the other games could only get the Texas game on standard def ESPN.

    • Stiv says:

      Yes. I watched that game in HD on ABC.

  26. JamesBE says:

    If you like sports you can’t “have it with ESPN.” You have no choice, they have exclusive rights with too many sports.

    Of course, even if you did have it with them, you’re not allowed to cancel them from your cable.

    Once again, why is a la carte pricing bad?

    • DanRydell says:

      No, a la carte pricing would be fantastic for people who only watch 3 channels and don’t mind paying $10 per channel.

  27. BrianneG says:

    I’m glad I was actually at a game on Saturday and didn’t have to worry about a lack of HD programming.

    We had a similar problem last weekend. The USC-Washington State game was aired on Prime Ticket (former Fox Sports West 2), which few cable providers happen to provide. Facebook was full of “What channel is the game on? Can anyone find it?” and USC sent a special e-mail out a couple days before saying you could stream the game over the internet for about $6.

  28. azz100c says:

    This is a technological issue with ESPN offering as many games to each part of the country as possible. This is not “arbitrary” but deals with network bandwidth and your local cable provider.

    Furthermore, I see people in this thread commenting who clearly have no idea how cable television works. I can’t even reply to all of them.

    The long story short is that if you were deprived HD for the game you want to watch, don’t blame ESPN — blame your local ABC affiliate.

  29. VectorVictor says:

    Since ESPN3 has been brought up, if the game is not being shown currently on your local affiliate, then it should not be blacked out on ESPN3. If the game WAS being shown on the local affiliate, but then said affiliate decides to drop the game for whatever reason, then that blackout on ESPN3 should be immediately lifted for the folks that care to continue watching the game in question.

    And while we’re all complaining about ESPN HD/SD coverage, it does have to be said that it’s many times better than the garbage Vs. and Fox Sports/Fox Sports PPV broadcasts, even if it’s in standard def.

  30. mmb5 says:

    This gets complicated, but here you go (and the Big 10 is actually involved)…

    If there is a game being shown on ABC, it is often time split regionally like in the map you saw below. The main game this Saturday was Texas-Oklahoma, followed by Michigan St.-Wisconsin and then Virgina Tech-NC State.

    The Big 10 has a deal with ABC/ESPN that the game that will be appear on ABC must appear on ESPN if the game is not being shown in the local market. So, anywhere pretty much outside the Big 10 footprint, the game was shown on ESPN. However, in the Big 10 footprint, ESPN can’t show the Big 10 game, because its on ABC and the local affiliate gets first dibs over ESPN. So they substitute the Oklahoma-Texas game instead.

    But here’s the catch — ESPN only has one HD feed, but multiple standard feeds. Since the Big 10 game was going to be shown on ESPN in the majority of the country, that game got the HD feed. The Texas-OU game was relegated to a standard feed.

    The reason why you saw ESPNews on ESPN is simply a trick done by your local cable comapny, where they can simply have master control say ‘during this time period, show ESPNews on this channel instead’. If you’re on satellite, the ESPNHD feed would actually be blacked out in Big 10 country, and the other two games are showed on alternate channels in SD.

    This also occurs in other sports as well where ESPN tries to be regional instead of national, such as women’s basketball and women’s softball. One game can be in HD, the rest have to be in SD.

  31. cys_av8r says:

    Life sucks…get a helmet.

  32. cappy says:

    I’m betting this guy changed his mind this morning. For the record, I don’t watch sports or have cable.

  33. Kasey says:

    It’s a pretty simple explanation, though not excusable in 2010 with almost everything expected to be in HD.

    ESPN has the ability to regionalize their broadcast feed on the SD channels. It’s a little used feature, although during college basketball tourneys in the spring and the college baseball tournament it gets used a lot. They just send a signal down the satellite and the receiver at your cable co’s headend switches the feed around automatically.

    They have yet to duplicate that ability on the HD side, though – they only have the capability to pass one HD feed at a time. So that’s why you get ESPNews or – worse – blacked out. I’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that they can pack 6 SD channels into one satellite transponder, but only 2 HDs in the same space.

  34. colinlord says:

    While ESPN/ABC broadcast regional games, they only have the HD capacity to air one game on ESPN HD. It’s not so much a blackout as it’s a lack of bandwidth. They can only pick one of the regional games to air on the ESPN HD channel so usually there’s a third game that gets put on just the standard def channel to part of the country that’s usually not in the primary markets.

    In your area, Wisconsin-Michigan State was the game that the local ABC affiliate was airing. But that was also the game airing on ESPN HD to most of the country. Because ABC gets it, ESPN HD is turned off and they put up ESPNEWS HD instead. There’s not a 2nd ESPN HD feed for your cable company to offer the Texas-Oklahoma game but they did have a SD feed so they offered that.

  35. toodarnloud says:

    ABC probably had the HD distribution rights for that game. You just don’t get the Texas/Oklahoma game on ABC in your market. The ABC game in your market was probably broadcast on ESPN everywhere else. Or, as another commenter suggested, they may simply not have had the backhaul bandwidth to deliver HD to ESPN just for your market. (Remember, ABC had the game in HD for a large portion of the country.)

    You are looking at it from the wrong direction. You should be happy that ESPN was able to carry the standard definition feed. Once you live for a few years with only over-the-air channels, you’ll be appreciative anytime you get to see the game you want to see that is out-of-market (ie to watch a Texas game in Minnesota).

    • rmanderson says:

      ESPN and ABC are both own by Disney. ESPN produces all the college football games. ABC is just an OTA extension of ESPN when it comes to college football.

    • snobum says:

      The problem is, if you look at the maps, most of the country gets the HD feed. It’s only a small percentage of people that get the SD feeds. Makes no sense since ESPN and ABS are the same company. Either way, you’re broadcasting the same number of feeds.

  36. Donathius says:

    Wow…what must it be like to watch my favorite college team in HD…

    My favorite team (BYU) is locked into a contract with the craptacular Mountain West Network for another year. Not only does the Mountain Network not have HD coverage, they also don’t know how to follow the play action. At least once per quarter during every football game they will inevitably end up showing the commentators on the screen WHILE there is play action on the field. They are so amateurish I can’t stand it. Every now and then a BYU game shows up on ESPN HD and it’s practically cause for celebration. The game is in HD, the camera guys know how to follow plays, and the director actually knows how to show the action.

    Of course the way BYU is playing this year maybe I don’t want to see it at all.

    • paul says:

      Mountain West Network has had some games in HD since 2008, and has stated that every football game will be broadcast in HD in 2010. On DirecTV the HD version is channel 616-1.

  37. wezzul says:

    Just an FYI, the maps are easy to find. They even broadcast the URL on ESPN (saw it this past Saturday):

  38. ljmunz says:

    Just to note, you can find the coverage maps on without search, although I agree it’s not very obvious. When on the NCAAF section of the site, the second to last top nav link is “More” (right next to Odds, Rumors) which opens a dropdown with “2010 TV Maps”.

  39. Blious says:

    Reading this article made me smile b/c I was screaming the same damn thing this weekend

    Why certain blackouts are put in is mind-boggling and just show how utterly ridiculous, out-dated, and pathetic certain TV restrictions are….simply for the TV industry to make as much money as possible no matter how much the consumer gets raped

  40. krom says:

    If HDTV service is this ridiculous, even now in the post-ATSC age, I guess I’ll still hold out. Why shell out $500 for a modestly sized HDTV when you can’t even hardly get HD?

  41. divedeep says:

    I completely understand the OP’s frustration. Luckily, I was able to catch OU’s beatdown of Texas in glorious HD in my area. If it were in standard definition, we wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was Mack Brown or Cooter from the Dukes of Hazard on the sidelines. Important stuff, people!

  42. MSUHitman says: would be your friend if your internet provider supports it. HD quality streams not limited to geographic area. If you have an XBox 360, it will be added to the dashboard via an app before the beginning of Nov.