SBJ/Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2013/Leagues and Governing BodiesPrint All
There are regular signs of autumn that are traditional and comfortable: leaves turning, pumpkins on porches, cooler temperatures.
And then there is the now-annual torrent of media bickering over whether Major League Baseball is a dying entity, arriving squarely — and inconveniently — in the heart of the sport’s postseason.
This year has been no exception. The New York Times recently wondered why baseball “feels so irrelevant.” The Philadelphia Inquirer called the World Series “a curious relic from another era.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote baseball is “far from our national pastime anymore.” Fox News ran a prominent segment on baseball “striking out” among mainstream sports fans.
On and on the criticism goes.
Much of the yearly backlash seems to be gut-based opinion and runs counter to facts. Major indices for baseball such as attendance, revenue, regional and national TV rights, sponsorship and merchandise sales, online traffic, franchise values, and labor health are all at or near record levels, with no signs of reversal in the near future — and in many instances, showing steady growth.
But the autumnal accusations are pervasive and present an operational and PR challenge for MLB. There are hundreds of hours of combined staff time devoted each fall, particularly in public relations, to combating the sky-is-falling talk. Key rights holders such as Fox Sports are similarly put on the defensive. Through it all, the league must seek to strike a delicate balance in its public positioning: fighting back without seeming overly defensive. All in all, it’s a difficult position to be in.
“Some stories are best just not addressed, but you still have to pay attention to everything, particularly at the height of our commercial season,” said one baseball insider who requested anonymity because of the sensitivities around the topic. “It’s difficult sometimes because the analysis that’s applied is often so wrong.”
Even through this postseason featuring close series, high drama, household names and solid television ratings, MLB still found itself on the defensive. Much of that is based primarily, if not entirely, on national-level TV ratings during baseball’s postseason. It’s certainly there that the critics have the most ammunition, as World Series ratings for last year’s San Francisco-Detroit matchup, a four-game sweep for the Giants, fell to an all-time low average of 12.7 million viewers.
In addition, three of the lowest-viewed World Series in history have come within the last five years. The event as a whole has slipped considerably in viewership over the past decade as the entire entertainment landscape has splintered. ESPN’s Keith Olbermann devoted a five-minute segment on his show last Wednesday, the night of Game 1 of the World Series, to this dynamic, stating, “We begin with the World Series, which you’re not watching. … Major League Baseball has managed to basically kill off what was not just this country’s greatest sporting event, but its ultimate nonpolitical shared national experience.”
Also, last year’s World Series drew a median viewer age of 53 years old, much higher than comparable championships in the other U.S. pro leagues.
But it’s not just previous internal comparisons that present a PR challenge for MLB. With the NFL season in full swing during the World Series and continually posting the highest TV ratings in all of American television, it makes for easy comparisons and fodder for critics. Such correlations will continue when the World Series will compete with football for viewers on as many as four of seven nights. There is also the strength of college football that nicks at baseball’s postseason, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that MLB plays its postseason directly competing against first-run programming on competing networks, something not applicable to any other major sport.
While details of the league’s PR and response plans are scarce, baseball and Fox Sports spend considerable resources to publicly advance the notion that any individual World Series rating, good or bad, is not a singular litmus test on the overall health of the league.
“Any consideration of engagement and relevancy that doesn’t include digital these days just isn’t complete,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media president and chief executive, and one of the few executives who would talk on the record on this subject. “Really, what we’re after is a broader definition of engagement that goes beyond just TV and into all forms of media.”
Still, MLB, the MLB Players Association and the league’s network TV partners have steadily sought to infuse the sport’s broadcasts with enhancements such as new camera angles and players’ wearing microphones. Part of the prevailing theory behind the collaboration is that if those enhancements can bring viewers closer to the game and its players, ratings will improve and the criticism will lessen.
“We’re certainly aware of the things being said and written out there,” said Tim Slavin, MLBPA director of business affairs and licensing. “And, of course, a lot of it doesn’t match up with how we see the business, and growth we see in the business. But we’re continually having conversations with the league about how we can enhance our game and our game broadcasts without compromising the integrity of the game. The key thing for us there is balance. And it’s been what we think is a pretty healthy dialogue.”
World Series game start times are a particular target, as many media believe MLB starts its championship games too late and in the process is disenfranchising younger fans. But such arguments ignore years of ratings data showing even younger demos watch in greater numbers during close games late at night. In addition, other events such as the NBA Finals and the NCAA men’s basketball title game have had much later start times. Few point to the fact that MLB in 2010 tried a 7 p.m. ET start time for Game 3 of the World Series to disastrous results. Since then, its games have hovered around 8 p.m. ET.
Fox Sports, of course, remains actively involved in the development of the playoff TV schedule and in favor of the current start times.
“We have a TV partner. They pay us a lot of money, and we’d like to make them happy,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig earlier this year.
Social media also has been a big part of baseball’s response to the October doomsday predictions. MLB has been much more aggressive in spotlighting the celebrity involvement in baseball, such as its recent run of Hollywood stars at playoff games, something the sport is accused of lacking.
And both MLB and Fox Sports each day during the postseason have actively tweeted out regular tune-in prompts, in-game spotlights of key plays and ratings data following each game.
The amount of activity baseball devotes to developing content tailored for social media, particularly video, is accelerating. And during last week’s World Series games in Boston, a league staffer wondered aloud to a reporter, somewhat in jest, whether his time just then would have been better spent on Twitter creating additional posts.
“Are we doing enough?” the staffer said. “It’s something I continually ask myself, because you never want to get satisfied.”
Satisfaction for baseball may only come when it begins to somehow quiet the din that tries to drag down its Octobers to remember.
Competitive playoff races in Major League Soccer along with the U.S. men’s national team’s successful bid to qualify for next year’s World Cup are helping MLS’s website reach new heights in viewership.
According to comScore data, the number of average monthly users on MLSSoccer.com is up 86 percent from 2012. With the MLS playoffs beginning this week and continuing through to MLS Cup on Dec. 7, Chris Schlosser, MLS Digital vice president, is confident the website will break the record for average monthly users that was set last year.
In September alone, there were more than 2 million users on the league’s website, along with a total of more than 5 million users across the league and club sites, according to MLS data. With the regular season ending this past Sunday with tight playoff races and four teams in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield — won by the club with the best regular-season record — October traffic for the league site has more than doubled (up 116 percent) the volume of October 2012.
Besides videos, features and news on its own league, MLS on its website provides coverage of the men’s national team — which clinched a bid in the 2014 World Cup with a win over Mexico on Sept. 10 — and global soccer from a North American perspective.
Schlosser said connectivity from social media, where MLS has more than 255,000 Twitter followers and more than 600,000 Facebook likes, has played a big part in the increase in website users.
Also helping the numbers was the July debut of Golazo, MLS’s second-screen experience that lets fans follow matches though the real-time integration of statistics, video highlights, photos and social media. Average traffic per MLS game has increased 16 percent, and the average time spent by a fan has increased by one minute per visit after the launch of the Golazo system.
MLS began running its own website in 2010 after a six-year digital partnership with MLB Advanced Media. The MLS website currently employs 50 full-time and 50 part-time employees. When the site launched, there were 70 employees in total. For the year, more than 8,000 stories will be published and more than 500 hours of original video will be produced for MLSSoccer.com by the end of the 2013 — both highs.
According to comScore, MLS Digital Properties — the rollup of league-partner sites that includes MLSSoccer.com, Goal.com, the youth soccer sites Got Soccer and Top Drawer Soccer, and the website of U.S. Soccer — has had the highest user count among digital soccer properties in the United States for 22 of the last 24 months. Competitors in this space include the online soccer coverage of ESPN, Fox and NBC Sports.
Revenue for MLS Digital Properties this year has increased 45 percent over 2012, Schlosser said. He declined to provide specific financial data, but that sum includes subscription revenue from the MLS Live streaming service, which provides access to 230 game broadcasts for a full-season cost of $60.
NBA Digital is relaunching its Game Time mobile application for the 2013-14 season, marking a key product enhancement as the NBA-Turner Sports digital partnership hits its five-year anniversary.
The relaunch of Game Time arrives in concert with the NBA signing on to be a launch partner of mobile-style push notifications that Apple Inc. is now including for its Safari Web browser as part of its new OS X Mavericks operating system.
This fall marks the five-year anniversary of the public debut of NBA.com and NBA TV under the control of the NBA Digital partnership. While several facets of the deal, such as social media and the historic rise of mobile, were barely contemplated in the original 2008 digital deal, NBA Digital executives said the core elements of the alliance continue to bear fruit.
“Turner is now hitting its 30th anniversary as a league partner, and when you think it about, it really shows how this partnership has evolved,” said Christina Miller, NBA Digital senior vice president and general manager. “We’ve now gone to a 24/7/365 mentality toward covering the league, but the initial building blocks of showcasing the game itself and its players has remained the same.”
The NBA expects to eclipse last year’s record of $1 billion in total gate revenue this season.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, speaking at last week’s board of governors meeting in New York, said that strong season-ticket sales are helping drive the league’s business. “Everything coming off a very strong base is going to be up this season,” Stern said.
Brooks would not disclose specifics but said that the league is on track to sell more than the record of 250,000 full-season tickets it sold last season. The NBA last year sold 50,000 new full-season tickets, but Brooks did not disclose the specific number of new full sales for the coming season.
The momentum behind new sales is being driven in part by the resurgent Sacramento Kings, under new owner Vivek Ranadivé. The team is among the leaders in new full-season sales, though Kings officials would not disclose specific figures.
Stern will head to Sacramento for the Kings’ season-opening home game on Wednesday to recognize their resurgence after the team was sold over the offseason.
“I’m going to Sacramento to celebrate the success of that franchise in terms of their ticket sales and their sponsorships,” Stern said.
Team sponsorship revenue for this season across the league is up by a single-digit percentage over last year’s total. The most lucrative new sponsorship opportunity for clubs this season is the on-floor advertising space in their arenas in front of team benches, but to date, only the Indiana Pacers have sold that position.
The PGA Tour saw viewership declines across its network partners in 2013, offsetting major gains from the year before.
CBS’s 18-tournament schedule in 2013 saw an 11 percent drop in audience year-over-year, from an average of 2.745 million viewers to 2.439 million for its weekend broadcasts.
These numbers do not include majors.
The viewership losses cut into some handsome increases the year before, when CBS was up 20.2 percent and NBC was up 45 percent, but the 2013 numbers still represented an increase over 2011.
Ty Votaw, the tour’s executive vice president for communications and international affairs, said bad weather played a significant role in viewership this year.
Thirteen tournaments dealt with weather delays and three of the tour’s stronger events — the Farmers Insurance Open, Arnold Palmer Invitational and BMW Championship — finished on Mondays. Three others — the Shell Houston Open, Zurich Classic and Greenbrier Classic — were forced off network coverage and moved to Golf Channel for late Sunday finishes because of weather.
The Northern Trust Open and John Deere Classic finished on Golf Channel because of playoffs that made the telecast run long.
“We still feel very good about what we delivered to our television partners,” Votaw said. “The bar was set pretty high from the year before.”
Votaw also noted that digital traffic on PGATour.com experienced an 8 percent increase during the 2013 season.
— Michael Smith
As the PGA Tour grows beyond any recognizable borders, it is discovering the need to advance the way it does business.
That’s already the case for Steve Evans, the tour’s senior vice president of information systems. One of Evans’ responsibilities is oversight of ShotLink, the tour’s proprietary scoring technology that collects statistics and detects trends among the players.
ShotLink has evolved over the past decade into a vital brand that services the tour’s digital needs and enables the tour to license the scoring and stats to other websites and media outlets. ShotLink data, which produces close to 500 stats and trends, has become a primary source of information on the tour’s TV broadcasts as well.
The way Evans administers ShotLink, especially when the tour is staging events overseas, as it did this past weekend and next weekend, is about to undergo a significant overhaul.
“One thing we’ve got to do is make it more portable,” Evans said. “When you think about the different events we now have in Mexico, Latin America, Hawaii, China, there are a bunch of logistical challenges getting equipment there. To the extent that we can operate with a much smaller technology footprint on-site, that will help.”
For tour events in Malaysia and China this month, the tour hires a third party to collect the data and distribute the information from its production facilities on-site.
In the future, though, Evans will move the tour to a concept he calls “ShotLink in the Cloud,” a more centralized and economical method of administering ShotLink that no longer will require the same number of assets on-site. ShotLink in the Cloud also could benefit the Web.com and Champions tour events in the U.S., as well as developmental tours in Latin America and Canada.
Putting ShotLink data in a cloud, as opposed to running the information through an on-site production truck, “has the potential to take a lot of costs out of the operation and make the logistics a lot easier,” said Evans, who added that he’s uncertain specifically what the cost savings would be for each event.
ShotLink stats and scoring are recorded by walking scorers on the course. In the current setup, scoring information is fed to the production truck on-site near the media center. Anywhere from five to 10 producers in the truck format the information and distribute it to the media center, hospitality villages and TV broadcasters.
Within two years, Evans said, the information coming from the walking scorers will be entered into a smartphone or tablet and sent straight to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., no matter where the tournament is being held.
This new concept will make the tour office the hub of information instead of a production truck on-site. That will keep employees home during tournament weekends rather than on the road. “When you’re deploying people to all of these international sites, that’s a huge investment,” Evans said. “Soon, we’ll be able to do the bulk of the ShotLink administration from tour headquarters.”
For the near future, Evans said the Shot-Link production trucks will continue to travel to domestic PGA Tour events. Those trucks carry other equipment, such as LED scoreboards, so they have dual purposes.
The club’s World Series run postponed offseason business planning for 2014 that ordinarily would have started in mid- to late October. But Red Sox executives are anticipating a quick return next year to the type of intense ticket demand that fueled an MLB-record 794-game sellout streak that stretched for nearly 10 years before ending in April.
“We went through a really difficult time, and we certainly saw the lag effects behind that,” said Chief Operating Officer Sam Kennedy, referring to the streak’s end and an accompanying 7 percent drop in attendance this season. “But we saw things pick up in the latter stages of this year, and I do anticipate fan interest will be stronger next year, and that we will see that lag effect again in a positive direction. You’re judged on how you rebound, and great teams withstand down years.”
Season-ticket sales this year fell to about 21,000 full-season equivalents, below the 22,000 cap the team has used in prior seasons. Kennedy said he anticipated a return next year to that cap level and the return of a waiting list.
Decisions on ticket pricing for next year have not yet been made, but the Red Sox are considering the use of variable pricing for 2014. The years of constant sellouts at Fenway Park insulated the club from needing to experiment with ticketing structures such as variable and dynamic pricing, which have swept through much of professional and college sports. The Red Sox stand as the only MLB team with fully static pricing.
But the club is interested in placing higher values on marquee games, such as ones next year against the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs, and ones on peak calendar dates.
“We’re exploring that,” Kennedy said, echoing Red Sox vice president of business development Tim Zue, who last month said at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in Boston that the club was considering such measures. “It’s something we haven’t done, but we’ve obviously seen how commonplace it’s become in our industry.”
Red Sox sponsorship sales, meanwhile, are also expected to increase in 2014. Revenue in this area was flat this year compared with 2013, but required the signing of about 10 additional sponsors to get there, bringing the club’s total portfolio to 110 companies. A recent, two-year extension with longtime partner John Hancock has provided some early momentum heading into the winter.
■ ARCHIVAL ACTION: Last week’s release by MLB Productions of a special, three-minute online video commemorating the career of Fox Sports’ Tim McCarver as a World Series broadcaster marked just the latest example of a heightened use of baseball’s expansive video archives.
During this year’s postseason, MLB Productions has used the current-day matchups and events as inspiration to develop a series of short-form clips using archival highlights. Other recent examples include a clip of Reggie Jackson stealing home in the 1972 playoffs against Detroit, a playoff matchup revived again this year; and another of legendary Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully interviewing Sandy Koufax in 1965, released while this year’s Dodgers were playing in the National League Championship Series.
It’s not the first time MLB Productions has used its capability to quickly develop short clips such as those. During last year’s World Series, in which San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs in Game 1, it created a video linking Sandoval with prior three-homer World Series stars Babe Ruth, Jackson and Albert Pujols. But the pace of this year’s archival work has accelerated considerably.
The clips have been widely distributed on MLB.com and MLB’s social media feeds and have been picked up and embedded by dozens of third-party websites and blogs.
“We have more than 200,000 hours of footage, and we’re constantly going back and retagging it so it’s easier to retrieve when needed,” said Nick Trotta, director of library licensing for the Secaucus, N.J.-based MLB Productions. “So we’re constantly trying to come up with new and better ways to mine that library and think about what the fans would want to see.”