MLB is considering increased streaming of games with a twist

When many baseball fans hear “streaming,” they think of how it works in Major League Baseball now. There’s MLB.tv, as well as newcomers to digital delivery, Apple TV+ and Peacock. Whether it’s the fees associated with watching the games or the seemingly ubiquitous blackouts, the current model of game streaming isn’t universally popular with baseball fans.

At a recent owners meeting, Commissioner Rob Manfred hinted that MLB is taking a path to increasing streaming, but in a different way. The idea would be to allow fans to choose the games they want to stream and buy viewing rights to those games at their discretion, thereby avoiding blackouts. In an article in the athlete of Evan Drellich, Manfred had this to say:

“We believe we have fans who want to see baseball but don’t feel they have an appropriate opportunity to do so. There is a strong sense among owners that a company that we call ‘MLB Media’ should specifically step into the digital space to offer fans greater and more flexible ways to watch games.”

“It’s about giving fans who may be outside of the traditional cable bundle a proper opportunity to watch our games.”

Why are there power outages at all? Regional Sports Networks (RSNs) like SNY are buying the rights to broadcast games in their local markets and don’t want competition from a streaming service. This applies not only to broadcasting both a stream and RSN broadcast of the same game in a given market, but also to streaming or broadcasting another game in a team’s local market (unless the subscriber has MLB.tv or MLB Extra Innings purchased).

Access to games goes even one step further. MLB designates “local markets” for its teams, and sometimes those markets aren’t very local at all, but to protect the RSNs, games under current television deals can’t be streamed into them. Here are some examples from the cited article:

There’s another group of fans that MLB refers to as “unserved”: those who don’t have access to the television shows at all. This is the group that has games banned from MLB.tv not only because they are technically “in the market,” but the team’s RSN is not carried by a local provider such as a cable company.

Iowa isn’t the only market afloat in power outages. Six teams are also blacked out in Las Vegas. None of the California teams — the Angels, Athletics, Dodgers, Giants, or Padres — are viewable through MLB.tv, and neither are the Diamondbacks. Hawaii is in a similar boat as all of the California teams aren’t available via MLB.tv there either.

Hence the problem. There are “unserved” fans out there (most metropolitan fans don’t have that problem) who want to watch baseball but can’t. With the game’s popularity stagnant at best, not letting potential customers access the product is not a winning strategy. Manfred and the owners try to find possible solutions.

A broad streaming strategy being pushed by MLB cannot be implemented until at least most of the current RSN contracts expire. However, Manfred is confident that it can work. From the cited article:

“Unlike other companies, we have access to all digital rights and let’s not forget that we have the technology to stream 2,430 games since we’ve been doing this since 2000.”

The way information content is consumed is evolving rapidly and will continue to do so. The way we consume baseball content will also change. Perhaps RSNs and streaming will learn to live together. Perhaps baseball will disappear on RSNs, and fans will be able to choose teams whose games they want to stream and pay accordingly each year.

If baseball can expand its reach and fans can consume the content they want, that’s a good outcome. How MLB gets there is under investigation. Appealing to one subset of fans while alienating another shouldn’t be an option. MLB doesn’t have the best track record with client relationships.

We are in the digital age. MLB has an opportunity to improve streaming for the game and increase its popularity. Let’s hope they get it right.

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