Blackouts, devices and addiction: how Major League Baseball picks my pocket

I always point to the interactive/digital division of Major League Baseball as one of the most progressive and intelligent media companies on the planet. The official name of the operation is Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which indeed they are.

Nothing has come between the MLB and their digital future.  From consolidating every one of the professional franchises’ web presence and ecommerce operation under one common infrastructure to being the first to adopt and extend its content on every platform imaginable — from smartphones to tablets to laptops to game consoles — the MLB has come to define the true meaning of the second-screen viewing experience, extending the same television experience our grandfathers knew on black and white televisions to the brave new world of Moneyball statistics, multi-angle interactive shots, pitch-by-pitch placement analysis, and a general entertainment geekout that makes the most of America’s pastime while inducing its most rabid fans to part with serious cash each and every year. [that was the first 110-word sentence I’ve written in a very long time]

This season marks the fourth year I’ll be subscribing to baseball’s AtBat service. The first year was 2008, when I paid some forgotten amount — maybe $60 or $75 — so I could watch the Red Sox while I was stationed in Beijing during the Summer Olympics. There was something supremely comforting about sitting in my hotel room at 2 am and watching a day game live from Fenway.  Even simply listening to a WEEI radio broadcast on my Blackberry in the back of a Chinese taxi on my way to deal with some urgent customer issue at the women’s beach volleyball arena made me feel 100% the part of the Ugly American in a strange land.

For someone who lives on the road or constantly works outside of their home television market — mine is defined basically by the New England Sports Network’s footprint — the MLB service is a nice thing to have. Sitting in a hotel room in the evening with an iPad streaming the home team is a good thing — once you get past the pernicious and byzantine blackout restrictions — and even at home, while the game is on the big screen and blacked out from the device, the statistical GameDay service is a nice thing to have at hand if you want to geek out on some statistics during the beer commercials.

Here’s the pitch on the MLB commerce cart:

“You have selected 2012 MLB.TV Premium Yearly. Watch over 150 Spring Training games LIVE online with no blackouts. Watch home or away feeds of every out-of-market regular season game LIVE in HD quality. At Bat 12 is now included free with your MLB.TV Premium subscription: watch on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and select Android phones (now available), PLUS, new connected devices for the 2012 season like Xbox 360(coming soon).”

The price: $125 (and for merely $20 more I can get all of Minor League Baseball as well).

This year the MLB seems to have decoupled the AtBat service from the video service, so I am confronted with a $120 subscription to the premium service if I want to continue to be able to watch home games while I’m in New York City during the week. (yes, in theory I could be Slingboxing off of my home DirectTV system). Since I am a member-in-good-standing of the BLOHARDS (the Benevolent Loyal Order of the Honorable Ancient Red Sox Diehard Sufferers of New York), I feel obligated to keep a steady stream of Red Sox infiltrating the backyard of the despised Yankees. I know I could get off my agoraphobic ass and watch the games in a Red Sox friendly bar somewhere in Manhattan, but I doubt I’d be able to do so in my boxer shorts and know I’d end up in an over-served condition before game’s end.

The reality is I’ll probably watch two dozen games in their entirety via, most of them on an iPad, some in airport lounges on my Android phone, and probably a lot of the very cool 13 minute compressed hit-by-hit recaps that are shown every morning after. As for relying on the second-screen GameDay function — basically an avatar of a batter facing out towards a digital version of the home team’s outfield surrounded by stats and an pitch-by-pitch animation and strike zone placement — sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I’m a very ADD fan who generally does something else while the game drones in the background — email, memos, reading — and look up at the sound of the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, relying in the replay or rewind button to show me the action.

But I pay because I am a fan and fans are fanatics after all.  While the blackout policies always piss me off, and make me especially curse the national weekend and post-season blackouts induced by MLB’s exclusives with Fox Sports and ESPN, still I pay.

It’s a great racket they have going and deserves the praise it has received from both the tech and the financial press. There’s good reason CEO Bob Bowman made a list of the smartest people in tech in 2010 (here’s an interview he did with AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka last spring.) I know of no other media organization that rose to the challenge, seized the opportunity, and then innovated against the technical opportunity like Major League Baseball — a remarkable feat considering the league consists of 30+ independent owners governed loosely by a commissioner.


Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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