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Full baseball slate available with video

NEW YORK — About 1,000 major league baseball games will be broadcast on the Internet this season, though live feeds of hometown teams will be "blacked out" locally to preserve lucrative television rights.

Major league baseball has already sold full audio feeds and video highlights online for two years, and various sports have run limited trials for Internet video.

But the recent announcement by major league baseball marks the first time a major sports league is offering Internet video for an entire season.

Packages will cost $79.95 for the season, $14.95 a month or $2.95 for an individual game. Details are available at www.mlb.tv.

The service will feature about 45 games a week, out of about 100 played. It requires high-speed broadband access and Windows or Macintosh versions of RealNetworks' free media player. The feeds will come from television, complete with the home team's commentary and ads.

In addition to blocking hometown teams' games locally, major league baseball will not make any games available online during national TV broadcasts — Wednesday and Sunday evenings on ESPN and Saturday afternoons on Fox.

Games that had been webcast live will be available to hometown fans 90 minutes after they end.

The chief audience envisioned for the new service will be fans who have moved or otherwise follow specific players or out-of-town teams, said Bob Bowman, chief executive of baseball's Internet unit.

The service also will let fans follow rivals during the pennant races later in the season, he said.

Bowman estimates that 20,000 to 50,000 fans will sign up this year, "but if you fast-forward ahead to 10 years from now, who knows?"

To block hometown games, baseball will use so-called geolocation technology from Quova Inc., which matches computers' unique Internet addresses to cities or ZIP codes.

But the system is not perfect. America Online subscribers, for instance, will often appear to be coming from the company's Virginia headquarters, regardless of actual location. Technologies are also available to fake or mask the Internet address, which is often assigned by a service provider such as AOL or EarthLink.

"I don't ever underestimate the scientific capability of 16-year-old high school students," Bowman said when asked about concerns that Internet blackouts could be circumvented.

To verify a subscriber's location, Quova's information would be compared with ZIP codes attached to credit cards used for payment, he said. When a mismatch is identified, customer service representatives will telephone users. He estimates that 10 percent of subscribers will need such checks.

Anyone caught intentionally circumventing the system will be banned and fined $100, automatically charged to their credit cards, Bowman said.

He said a few people were caught when live video was tested last year with postseason games outside the United States and Japan.

Scott Ehrlich, a RealNetworks vice president, acknowledged that piracy will occur but predicted it won't be greater than theft of cable and satellite TV.

Bowman said technicians stand ready to adjust procedures as new circumvention methods are discovered.

Although the blackout areas will generally not extend much further than a local team's metropolitan area, there are some exceptions. For example, because of the way television rights are negotiated, Las Vegas will be cut off from six teams in California and Arizona even though the city lacks a major league baseball team of its own, officials say.