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February 18, 2010

Squawking Baseball

Non-traditional viewing

by Shawn Hoffman

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We're coming up on a really fascinating period in the history of sports media. At some point in the next five to 10 years, the television industry is going to be staring down the same barrel that the music industry has been looking at for the last decade. Cable in particular is just waiting to get its lunch eaten, as our already-exorbitant monthly rates keep going up thanks to more and more basic-tier channels that we'll never, ever watch. For the major sports leagues (and even some of the non-major ones, for that matter), the options are pretty clear: develop some contingency plans, or risk losing an incredibly large chunk of your revenues.

Thankfully, most of the leagues are now doing just that. The online streaming products that they've put out have improved by leaps and bounds over the past couple years, as have the technologies that surround them-faster broadband, more powerful PCs, and a brand new form factor that could end up being an amazing way to watch baseball. Even ESPN, the ultimate beneficiary of the current cable business model, is getting into the game, rebranding ESPN360 as "ESPN3," and positioning it as a full-blown network.

With all of that on the table, it wouldn't be a surprise if 2010 ends up being the year that SOIP (sports over IP) finally starts gaining critical mass. Let's take a step back, though, and look at why exactly this hasn't happened already. Here are some of the issues that have held SOIP back thus far:

  1. Quality and Stability: When MLB.tv first debuted seven years ago, it was far cooler to show your friends than to actually use. The picture was blurry, and it slowed down your computer so much that you were almost thankful when your browser inevitably crashed.

    That's all changed in a big way. MLB.tv is an incredible product now, and it finally became stable enough last year that I actually preferred watching it on a second monitor over watching Extra Innings on my TV. The features are almost ridiculous: watch multiple games at once, see real-time highlights from other games without leaving the game you're watching, get player alerts from around the league, real-time box scores... I could go on. It's amazing, and it's no surprise that all of the other leagues are racing to copy it.

  2. Leaning Back vs. Leaning Forward: People don't want to lean forward when they watch sports-or any other type of long-form content for that matter. The reason TV works so well is that we get to lean back, sit comfortably and, if we want, still use our phones or our PCs for other tasks. You could set up a second monitor, which helps alleviate both problems somewhat, but the great majority of people will obviously never do this.

    But what if we could use our TVs to watch MLB.tv-with all of its features-instead of Extra Innings? Despite being close partners with cable providers on both EI and MLB Network, MLB has been pretty aggressive about making MLB.tv available on your big screen, whether it's through Boxee, the Roku box, or some other means. (Expect to see it on the Xbox at some point this year.) And why not? MLBAM gets 100 percent of the revenue from MLB.tv, and only a portion from EI. Considering how much more feature-rich MLB.tv is, this will be an easy choice for the growing number of people who have these setups installed.

  3. A Hole in Mobile: Yes, MLB.tv subscribers can watch games on their iPhones or iPod Touches. But as I wrote last summer, this isn't something you will ever use for more than 10 minutes at a time due to the small screen and the fact that you can boil eggs on the phone after you've used it for a while. And yes, laptops are technically mobile devices, but this is the same lean-forward/lean-back problem as before; we've been able to watch games on our laptops for seven years already, and it's never been an optimal solution.

    Of course, this is pretty similar to how people felt about reading books on a PC, which never really worked either. But it wasn't the content that was the problem-it was the technology. When people finally had an excellent device to read on, e-books took off in a huge way. It's hard to say without actually using it first, but it's entirely possible that the iPad will be that device for mobile SOIP. Just look at this, or watch the video. That alone makes me want to shell out the $500. And if it works as well as I think it might, you can bet the other leagues and networks will rush to get their own apps in as well. (Given Disney's close relationship with Steve Jobs and Apple, it's a pretty solid bet that ESPN3 will be on the iPad soon enough regardless.)

Of all the leagues, MLB has put itself in a particularly good position to take advantage of these trends. Unlike the NFL, its streaming prices are very reasonable, its product is outstanding, and they've made it available on a number of different platforms. All of those things will help it battle the next great challenge to sports broadcasting: piracy, which has already become so easy that my dad, who is in his 60s and literally doesn't know how to type, has figured out how to watch Steelers games for free online instead of paying $400 for the TV package. For sports that depend on paid subscription services-such as boxing, and especially UFC-that's got to be terrifying.

But MLB.tv is so good, and so cheap on a per-game basis, that it would be almost stupid notto buy it if you're planning on watching games online. And that's how you win in this space. Don't be surprised if a lot more people discover it this year.

Shawn Hoffman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Shawn's other articles. You can contact Shawn by clicking here

Related Content:  Mlb The Show,  Mlb.tv

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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fieldofdreams

Interesting piece. This is the time of year when many of us are deciding between EI & mlb.tv. It would be nice to have a how to enjoy mlb.tv. while "sitting back" and pro/con article that takes this in much more detail.

Feb 18, 2010 17:10 PM
rating: 0
 
mjglenn

So I take it this means MLB.tv will once again be shocked at how many people sign up for their product causing games to crash during times of peak usage throughout April. Customer service will once again consist of rude employees telling customers to reboot their computers or install/uninstall a plug-in or product they have installed ten times/never installed in the first place. Money back? Don't even think about it. Yet I have to admit, when it works, the product is so good that I've already subscribed for the 2010 season.

Feb 18, 2010 17:57 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

With the caveat that I have friends at MLB.com and have done work for them, I have NEVER had these problems with them. I've had some issues with bandwidth and the occasional crash, especially with Flash. I'm very curious about this, since I know that the iPhone app and I'm assuming the iPad app (and they're two different things, if you haven't noticed) will be using h.264. If MLB.tv gave me that option like I now can with YouTube, I'd eject Flash the same way I did Microsoft Office once given a reasonable alternative.

My only concern is that watching more video will bounce me off the caps Comcast has instituted.

Feb 18, 2010 19:18 PM
 
Bob

MLB.tv was just a hair short of a disaster last year. Their HD/enhanced version rarely ever worked for an entire game. In fact, I can't remember watching a single game when it worked for nine innings. Every few innings or so, your picture would either completely freeze or it would jump back into standard mode, which was usually a half inning ahead of the enhanced version. I have a fast new computer and an otherwise flawless internet connection. I'd *strongly* discourage anyone from buying this until they can prove they have their stuff together (something they never were able to do last year). The customer service was, at best, clueless. Everyone else I know who had this last year ran into the same problems.

Feb 19, 2010 21:21 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

That's why I can't do it. I have Hughes Net satellite internet. I'd watch one game on MLBtv and be over my Fair-access limit and be zapped for 24-hours.

Feb 22, 2010 21:30 PM
rating: 0
 
mikedee

MLB.tv is notoriously horrible at times, especially opening day. While we're bashing Extra Innings, can we talk about how comcast doesn't offer it in HD?

IMO, nothing compares with the strike zone channel in HD from DirectTV. Of course, I can't have DirectTV and still watch the Phillies.

OK......MLB.tv through a proxy server is far superior.

Feb 18, 2010 18:18 PM
rating: 1
 
MHaywood1025

The iPad demo looked great, but keep in mind those games were recorded video, not streaming. It is hard for me to believe live games will look that good.

Feb 18, 2010 19:45 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Shawn Hoffman
BP staff

Live games on the iPhone look that good on wifi, so I'd expect it to be at least as good on the iPad.

Feb 18, 2010 22:37 PM
 
MattZ

When is the MLB going to fix their 'home region' issues? I know for a fact that Tigers fans are double blacked out where I live (Can't watch through MLBTV/EI or Detroit's Cable/Satellite channel).

Feb 18, 2010 21:15 PM
rating: 6
 
workermonkey

i live in CT which is a local area for yankee games but hte only cable service provider available to me lumps my town in with Springfield, MA so games get blacked out because the cable company tells MLB i'm in MA, not CT. i can't get yankees games over MLBvt because i'm in the local viewing area. the whole system is a mess and i can't see game at all where i live. i've never had a proper resolution from either side other that its the other guys' problem. i even had one service rep from the cable company tell me he was sick of taking these calls and there was nothing he could do about it. blackout restrictions need to go.

Feb 19, 2010 10:24 AM
rating: 2
 
Guancous

MLB on the iPhone was good when they offered your favorite team and another game per day. They updated it around August and it became stellar. Every video feed was available and the picture went from granulated to HD. Yeah, you'll need a battery pack to finish a game but it's better than any podcast at the gym.

Feb 18, 2010 21:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Cartwright

My son has a 42" HDTV as the primary monitor for his desktop PC, sharing it with his XBox and Blu-Ray.

They didn't have these things when I was young!

Feb 18, 2010 23:59 PM
rating: 0
 
davekirsch

Much as I'd love to order MLB.tv, I have concerns similar to MattZ. When will they fix their 'home region' issues? I'm about 300 miles from the nearest major league ballpark, yet I'd be blacked out of 20% of major league teams (D-Backs, Padres, Dodgers, Angels, A's, Giants). After learning that, in a millisecond I went from "I'll buy it" to "No sale".

Also, is their an application similar to the iPhone one for Windows Mobile users? I have decent broadband access & can watch through browser if necessary, but would prefer a dedicated app.

Feb 19, 2010 00:40 AM
rating: 0
 
cubfan131

I'm in the same boat being from central Iowa. I'm blacked out from the Cubs, Royals, Cardinals, Twins, White Sox, and Brewers. I would have no problem giving MLB $120 for MLB.tv but not if I can't watch what I want when I want.

Feb 19, 2010 07:13 AM
rating: 1
 
workermonkey

agreed, i'd gladly buy the mlbtv package rather than cable but i'm blacked out for being in the home region of teams i want to watch.

Feb 19, 2010 10:25 AM
rating: 1
 
Evan
(47)

Whereas, the product is just gold for Canadians. Only Blue Jays games get blacked out, and they're all available on basic cable anyway.

Feb 19, 2010 10:34 AM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

Neyer writes about 'home region' stuff annually because it's voted on at every summer Owners Meetings. Once we reach some threshold they will reduce them in size. I live 4 hours from NYC and still get the Mets & Yanks blocked. But it's been a blessing as well, causing me to watch many other teams and develop some fav announcers.

Considering that I watch it almost every day during the season, I consider it cheap beyond words. And with subscribership going up so rapidly, I'm pretty sure they will be offering big improvements with all forms of interface. Maybe even customer service.

Feb 19, 2010 18:59 PM
rating: 1
 
schmub

I enjoyed MLB.tv before it was available on Roku, but my viewing increased exponentially once I could easily stream it to my TV.

Feb 19, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
mbryant

Great article. And I agree that MLB.TV is a great product. However, I agree with other comments that the customer service (should you have problems) is absolutely terrible. (And there were technical problems at the start of the 2009 season).

As I am baseball fan living overseas (in England), MLB.TV is the only way I can follow my Red Sox!

Feb 19, 2010 09:48 AM
rating: 2
 
goldgarf

Until MLB changes its blackout policy and you can watch games in your home city (e.g., I am in Denver and can't watch Rockies games on MLB.tv), viewing on-line won't take off.

Feb 19, 2010 10:27 AM
rating: 2
 
workermonkey

has anyone used www.justin.tv to watch in-market baseball games? I've only discovered the site recently and it worked great for NFL games and college basketball, haven't had a chance to see if it'll work for baseball yet.

Feb 20, 2010 11:12 AM
rating: 0
 
chasfh
(197)

As has been alluded to in earlier comments in this thread, the author is so breathlessly smitten with MLB.tv on various platforms that he is either oblivious to or willfully ignoring the huge-ass elephant in the room: MLB's blackout situation. Is the author an employee of Major League Baseball or something? That would be the only justification for his avoiding the issue. Otherwise, it's bad sports journalism, although it was an exciting sales pitch.

Feb 21, 2010 08:02 AM
rating: 2
 
wonkothesane1

I'm looking forward to getting mlb.tv this year. I bought a laptop with an HDMI connection and I just have it plugged into my TV. It has a wireless keyboard and mouse so I get the lean back experience. In fact, I'm leaning back right now and typing this.

Feb 21, 2010 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

I'm an EI diehard. MLB.tv is nice, but I'd never switch.

Feb 22, 2010 21:28 PM
rating: 0
 
greenengineer

Gotta fix the home team blackout. Otherwise I'll find it somewhere else (Justin.TV, etc), for free.

Feb 23, 2010 04:40 AM
rating: 0
 
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Premium Article Under The Knife: Hitti... (02/18)
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