I Like Baseball: How The Internet Is Changing a Thing I Like

The Internet is changing baseball, which is a thing I like.

Humans like competing [1]. But while organized sports have been around for as long as human civilization [2], how we’ve consumed them has changed significantly and frequently in the last 100 years.

Until the 20th century, the only timely engagement with sports was to go in-person. A few lucky ancient Greeks may have been immortalized by a Homeric poem or two [3], but that’s not exactly a quick turnaround. To some extent, that changed with the mass dissemination of information via newspapers, but even that would happen on a one- or two-day delay.

That changed with radio. For the first time, baseball and football could be consumed live by fans who weren’t in the stadium. It created a new wave of jobs—think broadcasters and production managers, for example—but it also was critical for the growth of sports and of radio. Without radio, sports would never have become as widely consumed as they’ve become. And in turn, sports contributed to the rise of radio, giving reason for sports fans to engage.

Radio had a two- or three-decade run as the undisputed king, but that rapidly changed with the advent (and accessibility) of television. Broadcasters stopped being story-tellers and started doing more to let the images on TV tell those same stories. Baseball, a sport so perfectly suited for radio, lost top-billing as America’s most popular sport to football, where the big hits are (or at least were, pre-concussion) a whole lot better to see than just to hear about.

Television engagement changed the way the sports were played and delivered—the pace of the games, the advertising, and the camera angles used haven’t changed all that much since the first baseball game was broadcast on television nationally in 1951 [4].

With the rise of digital, we are in the midst of the third significant change in how fans will consume live sports. This post focuses on baseball, but online sports consumption will change the rules, engagement, and sources of revenues across the board.

In an era where content is increasingly consumed online, attitudes towards ads and pace of play has changed. Highlights from games, for example, are much more readily available because of options like YouTube than they’ve ever been before, and that risks making advertising during games a less appealing proposition for local and national businesses. It’s a similar problem to the one that late-night television is facing right now [5]—if fans can get the good stuff online, why sit through commercials and the less exciting elements of the game?

Major League Baseball has been behind the curve (pun fully intended) on a number of different fronts as they try to keep fans engaged, but MLB Advanced Media is best-in-class. It allows fans to watch almost any game from anywhere. Home vs. road broadcasts, television vs. radio broadcasts, and regular vs. high-definition broadcasts are all available at different price tiers.

This change is significant for two key reasons:

  1. Fewer people are subscribing to cable packages [6], which means that they may not be able to watch games on TV. From a consumer perspective, paying only for the MLB package circumvents the annoyance of having bundled and therefore overpriced cable packages.
  2. People are increasingly mobile in the United States and moving into cities [7]. That means that people don’t necessarily live in the media market where their favorite team broadcasts its games [8], and MLB.tv solves that problem.

To some degree, MLB.tv can supplant cable with respect to subscription revenue—it can replace what it loses in cable with what it gains from online. But that doesn’t help with advertising, which is either less watched or less relevant (for out-of-market fans, for example; these ads that I suffer through/must cost $17.50 to make during Cardinals broadcasts [9] are wasted on me, a Boston-based fan), and it also means that companies need to figure out new ways to get their name out there.

Furthermore, the broadcast itself is fundamentally the same as it has been for decades: same camera angles, same broadcasting style, etc., and those are both increasingly obsolete now that I could easily toggle back-and-forth between options at the click of a button. I imagine that will change over time as well.

Lastly, rules will invariably continue to change. There’s talk of changing baseball rules around pace, intentional walks [10], designated hitters, and even options as drastic as changing the innings in a game [11]. The last one won’t happen, but over time I do expect more substantive changes to MLB rules as it adapts to fans with more modern sensibilities and to digital broadcasting.

Word count: 770


[1] No citation needed for that.

[2] Jeff Hartsell, “Wrestling ‘in our blood,’ says Bulldogs’ Luvsandorj,” The Post and Courier, March 16, 2011, http://www.postandcourier.com/sports/wrestling-in-our-blood-says-bulldogs-luvsandorj/article_38523109-17ce-59d5-9943-599b8e5cd508.html, accessed November, 2016.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, Book 8.

[4] The first nationally televised game was the National League playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, famous for a walk-off home run by Bobby Thompson now known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

[5] Brad Adgate, “With Colbert Coming To CBS, The Competition For Late Night Moves To The Second Screen,” Forbes, April 14, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2014/04/14/with-colbert-coming-to-cbs-the-competition-for-late-night-moves-to-the-second-screen/#f04ac206db5a, accessed November, 2016.

[6] Brad Tuttle, “A Record Number of People Just Cancelled Their Pay TV Subscriptions,” Time, August 31, 2016, http://time.com/money/4473996/cutting-the-cord-cable-tv-alternatives/, accessed November, 2016.

[7] United States Census Bureau, United States Summary: 2010, 2010, Table 6, p. 60, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/cph-2-1.pdf, accessed November, 2016.

[8] “A Map of Baseball Nation,” The New York Times, April 24, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/24/upshot/facebook-baseball-map.html, accessed November, 2016.
[9] Seriously, watch the commercial.

[10] Mike Axisa, “Report: Changes to strike zone, intentional walk may be coming in 2017,” CBS Sports, May 21, 2016, http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/report-changes-to-strike-zone-intentional-walk-may-be-coming-in-2017/, accessed November, 2016.

[11] “MLB exec thinks games should be shortened to 7 innings, is wrong,” USA Today, April 7, 2014, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/04/mlb-length-of-games-shortened-pitch-clock-seven-innings, accessed November, 2016.


New York Times… “trading analog dollars for digital pennies”


Behind Moneyball 2.0 Stands STATS

Student comments on I Like Baseball: How The Internet Is Changing a Thing I Like

  1. “Humans like competing.” Yes. And people love watching it.

    Many of us, who like you, have been uprooted from their hometeam’s geographic market feel that sports have not figured out to perfectly satisfy the on-demand economy. As you mention the commercials on internet broadcasts are not well targeted, and sometimes there are no advertisements at all, just a blue screen that says “we will be right back” between plays/innings. My question for you is who is feeling the pain of this inefficiency? It is certainly not Major League Baseball, whose revenues have increased every year for 13 straight years[1]. Is digitization creating value for the league in such a linear fashion? Or, perhaps, some unwitting actor is actually suffering somewhere else in the value chain.

    [1] http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-stew/mlb-s-gross-revenue-increases-for-13th-straight-year–nears–9-5-billion-051036114.html

  2. Interesting post, Ben, I hadn’t before thought about how media distribution methods impacts our interaction with pro sports.

    A question that comes to mind when reading your post is audience. When games were followed locally, on the radio, or broadcast on TV, it was easy for a non-baseball fan to become a fan by stumbling across free coverage of the game. But, if broadcast goes more online behind a pay-wall, many potential viewers will not access the content because they don’t know if it will be worth their $17.50. I’m sure there will still be some free broadcast of games on radio and TV going forward, but do you have a proposal for how to attract a larger audience for baseball in the digital realm? As “America’s pastime,” it feels important that the next generation is equally exposed to baseball as past generations.

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