Is MLB.tv Striking Out? There’s An App For That

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Scott Litman, Magnet 360 Managing Partner

It’s well established that I’m interested in audiences, new media and sports.  And so is my brother.  Scott Litman is a leader in the marketing community, Managing Partner of Magnet 360, co-founder of the Minnesota Cup, and the best businessman I know.  He’s also a huge sports fan, which is why we are writing this post together.  Simply put, Major League Baseball needs our help.  MLB may be hitting home runs in technology, but in marketing and distribution, it’s definitely striking out.  So we’re stepping up to the plate to offer some solutions.

Major League Investment

Major League Baseball has made an impressive investment in new technology, but that investment will be wasted if MLB doesn’t learn to embrace its audience.

MLB.TV streams every game to fans around the world, offers DVR-like services for those that miss games, and is among the first to embrace new platforms like iPhone, iPad, and Android to put the baseball experience in the hands of its fans.  These investments have not been trivial, and MLB has been a trailblazer among the major sports.  And yet, dragged down by archaic contracts and an old world media mindset, MLB limits the potential of these investments to the detriment of the game, the teams, the fans, the advertisers, and their TV partners.

Blackout Blues

Key words: "where available"

Many local fans who routinely watch games on TV are not able to watch all games, because MLB blacks out local broadcasts on all of these new platforms.   Why not allow them to purchase the subscription to MLB.TV so they can watch online, on an iPhone or an iPad?  We realize MLB has contractual issues with local TV providers and they can’t just flip a switch.  But, the tools and technology are readily available that would allow MLB to give full advertising credit for every digital viewer of a home game within the broadcast area, actually enhancing the revenue of the local TV broadcasters.

Will their viewership cannibalize the number watching on traditional TV?  Doubtful.  People rarely choose smaller screens over big ones.  But they do choose small screens when they don’t have any other options, meaning local broadcasters will have access to many more total viewers if MLB just opens the doors.

Yes, a few fans will choose to watch online or on devices instead of subscribing to cable TV, but that’s only a problem for the cable company,  not the team or cable broadcaster – because as long as MLB runs the same ads on these other platforms, cable advertisers will still get the same (or even more) total viewers.  And since those viewers are using their screens just like TV’s – not computers – those viewers are just as valuable to advertisers.  CBS proved that during its very successful online broadcasts of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, getting the same per-viewer rates for commercials, whether they aired online or on TV.

Money Matters

What about charging separately for these online ads, rather than letting the local broadcasters reap the benefits?  That would be shortsighted, and could create the same concerns among broadcasters that led to the current setup.

Under our plan, though, MLB would still end up with just as many advertising opportunities as it currently has, because it could still run its own ads over the out-of-market feed (the only feed that’s available now, anyway, since the local feed is blacked out).  Meanwhile, the once lost viewer now becomes one that can watch more games, consume more ads, increase revenue through subscription to MLB, increase ad revenue to TV partners and be a happier and more loyal fan.

iPricing

For iPhone users MLB is a very popular App, albeit an expensive one at $14.99.  In fact, that’s a clear sign that fans will pay, even for an App that becomes obsolete at the end of the season.  Unlike most Apps, fans are required to buy a new one at the start of each season.  It’s aggressive from a pricing standpoint, but fans have accepted it.

Still, many fans were put over the top when they saw that just days after shelling out $14.99 for their iPhone Apps that they had to pay another $14.99 to get the same App on iPad.  Based on feedback on iTunes, many fans are irritated by this pricing policy.

These are loyal and passionate fans, and a modest $5 upgrade would have rewarded their loyalty, and would likely have been greeted warmly by most.  Instead, MLB proved that it’s tone deaf towards its audience.

In fact, attempting to share feedback with MLB is an exercise in futility.  A web form with a 500 character limit, and a one sentence response – both standardized and inappropriate – makes it clear that MLB has no interest in listening to fans.  That should change, for the good of the game, and baseball’s bottom lines.

Major League Opportunities

MLB is so close.  They have the assets, and they have the opportunity, but their policies fail to capitalize on this at their own expense.  A few modest changes in policy could go a long ways towards increasing MLB revenue, accessibility of the game to fans, advertiser revenue, and team loyalty.  It seems like such an easy proposition as there are no losers and only winners. It’s a matter of whether MLB wants to go a little bit into digital or change the game.  At the moment, like much of the media industry, it’s got one foot into the future and one foot stuck in the past.

What do you think?  Let us know.  Unlike MLB, we really are interested in your feedback.

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    • Heidi Braun
    • May 3rd, 2010

    Brilliant. As Scott and I chatted about this last week via Twitter, MLB needs to step up to the plate and realize I’ll happily pay to watch games LIVE! They can monetize this so everyone wins. Great post!

    • Josh
    • May 4th, 2010

    MLB.TV a novel idea, so I asked for it as a gift for my birthday. Out of entire week of Minnesota Twins baseball, I was able to watch one game….ONE!

    It didn’t matter if they were at home or in Cleveland or Detroit. I couldn’t watch because of the blackout rules, so I canceled my subscription and was given a full refund (with shockingly no struggle.)

    If the blackout restrictions ever change, I will happily pay the subscription fee. Until then, I’ll just listen on my fuzzy AM radio while I toil away cleaning out my garage.

    • JOSH: That’s the problem. MLB’s current policies make their fans mad, while leaving money on the table. A different digital strategy would not only make you a happier, more engaged fan, but it would also make the teams and their broadcasters a lot more money.

  1. I have dealt with the same annoyances over the blackout policy. I ended up hesitantly ordering my cable back so I could catch more Twins games. I am also an iPhone user, so to your point, I would also like to watch games on my phone while not at home.

    One thing I did notice on mlb.com was that you can watch in-market games for the Yankees. Given that, I don’t know why they couldn’t make it possible for every market. Did the YES Network have special negotiating rights with them that other broadcasters don’t have? I would love to hear answers to that.

    • JASON: You’re right, MLB and YES negotiated a separate contract, which allows YES to sell the season online. They cut that deal last year, with YES paying for the rights to run their games on MLB’s digital platforms, and then recoup its investment from its advertisers. Clearly, this is the way MLB plans to handle its digital content, but we feel CBS getting full ad rates for online games is a game changer, that would allow both sides to reap immediate benefits from lifting the blackout, without needing to create separate agreements.

  2. This is another example of MLB using new technology and communication channels first, but not right. For as poorly as MLB is treating their fans with MLB.TV, they are treating fans of respective teams as poorly on social media.

    Here are a few Twitter accounts for MLB and MLB teams:

    http://twitter.com/MLB
    http://twitter.com/MinnesotaTwins
    http://twitter.com/cincinnatireds
    http://twitter.com/BlueJays
    http://twitter.com/NewYorkMets

    The thing you will notice within these accounts is the minimal engagement and following back. There may be an occasional giveaway within their tweets. Otherwise, it’s a lof of their content being pushed at you.

    Facebook is similar to Twitter, except there is a larger following of likes for each team. The content on Facebook is similar to Twitter, with a high level of interest from the following, but no engagement with the fans. It’s not uncommon to see 50 likes and 120 comments on a status. None of those comments come from the MLB team.

    I can only speculate when saying that other professional teams are watching how MLB is using social media and technology, and learning from their mistakes. It could be a classic case of ‘first to market is not always best in class’.

    • JASON: Great points about MLB’s lack of engagement in social media. Although “following” doesn’t guarantee true engagement, it is a bit of a hat tip towards fans, and skipping it certainly indicates either a lack of understanding or lack of respect for the relationship.
      Of course, we’re all learning how to use these tools, so hopefully MLB will notice the reaction and learn from its mistakes.

  3. Great article!

    Oh man – you hit the nail on the head. I bought a 1 month subscription for an MLB.tv account last month only to realize that I haven’t been able to watch 1 Twins game yet. So frustrating. I can only hope this message resonates across the web. It’s a new era and it’s time to be OK with change…or else you will miss the opportunity. (Don’t forget what happened to the music industry when they neglected the potential of a new model)

    • JONNY: What a great point about the music industry. Emerging technology certainly creates opportunities – but it’s up to businesses to take advantage of them.

  4. Hi,
    This is an interesting article. I paid for the MLB package so that I can watch the Twins in PA. It is strange that I can sit in suburban Philly and watch the Twins struggle at Yankee Stadium live while devoted Minnesotans are not given the same opportunity. I would also note that the technological “kinks” have not been worked out of the system. I watch online through Roku and am forced to sit through numerous reloadings which completely disrupt the flow of the game.

    • Kyle
    • February 19th, 2012

    While I wholeheartedly agree that restructuring blackout terms would benefit MLB in the long run, nowhere does the league market that MLB.tv is the solution for non-displaced fans. It’s always coming from the angle that it’s the way to follow your team from afar.

    Fans know what they’re getting into and what to expect. But yeah, blackouts are archaic.

  1. July 12th, 2010

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