SBJ/April 7-13, 2014/Media

Live local streaming down to one team in MLB

Major League Baseball’s 2014 season begins with more live streams of national games. But local in-market streaming, something the sport has grappled with for more than five years, will go another season without a significant rollout.

MLB’s new national TV contracts go into effect this year, allowing for live, digital simulcasts of nationally televised games, including crown jewel events such as the All-Star Game and World Series. The league’s national TV partners — ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports — each plan to stream their games on an authenticated basis. ESPN and Turner live-streamed some MLB games in prior seasons. Fox Sports is the new entrant to this space this year with its new Fox Sports Go mobile application.

YES Network quietly pulled the plug on live streaming, a service it began in 2009.

Local in-market streaming, however, will remain largely dormant. YES Network quietly has shut down its live streaming service this season, according to industry sources. The Yankees were the first MLB team to offer in-market streaming, thanks to a 2009 deal YES Network signed with Cablevision. But “Yankees on YES,” the name of the Yankees’ in-market streaming product, cost $69.95 a season and never caught on with fans.

Sources describe the consumer adoption as disappointing. Estimates for the first season in 2009 were about 6,000 subscribers for “Yankees on YES,” a minimal take-up rate for the country’s largest media market, with less-than-stellar growth in subsequent seasons. The San Diego Padres also experimented with in-market streaming, with little success.

That leaves the Toronto Blue Jays as the only team that offers live streams of games locally, providing authenticated live streaming through Rogers Anyplace TV. Online viewing for authenticated Rogers SportsNet subscribers carries no additional cost, while mobile viewing has a $5 a month surcharge. The Blue Jays operate under a different set of broadcasting and territorial rules in Canada, and are aided by the fact they have the entire country as their market territory and are owned by Rogers Communications, also the parent company of Rogers SportsNet and the Rogers Centre.

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Despite years of negotiations between MLB Advanced Media, which controls the digital rights for all 30 clubs, and regional sports networks and distributors, a lasting deal in any U.S. market that garners mass consumer acceptance still seems far away.

“Unfortunately, I think fans are going to go another season without their in-market games available on devices other than television,” said Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president. “There’s been great strides taken that the national games and all of the postseason are going to be available multiplatform. But there’s clearly still work to do on the local side.”

The issue comes largely down to economics. Distributors expect access to live streaming rights at no additional costs. But rights holders on the other side of the table are loath to give away a potentially valuable asset. With baseball still
deriving the majority of its revenue on a local level, the market for in-market streaming is being closely watched by many MLB clubs.
  
“Our first objective is to make sure that streaming stays inside a TV Everywhere, authenticated model,” said Jeff Krolik, Fox Sports Regional Networks president. “Our second objective is to convince people that there’s no extra pot of gold at the end of rainbow here. … Customers want to be able to watch television on their mobile device, on their tablet, just as if it were an additional outlet in their home. They’re not looking to pay an additional fee for that. They feel that’s something we should deliver.”

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MLB Advanced Media’s president and chief executive, Bob Bowman, said that in-market streaming for baseball is far from dead and that talks continue with multiple distributors and networks.

“You have the old line that ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ I sort of think about this the same way,” Bowman said. “Every spring we start the season with hope, not only for our teams on the field, but that something happens in this space. We remain interested and hopeful, and continue to have conversations.”

Fox Sports executives similarly remain hopeful the deployment of their new national
streaming rights with MLB will create momentum toward local deals. But they are prepared to go through another season without in-market streaming rights.

“It’s just part of the deal,” Shanks said. “It’s no longer something extra or something new. You can’t delineate between a digital right and a TV right, and however else you want to try and slice this up. It is part of the rights that you buy. That’s pretty clear and consistent with every deal that’s being done now.”

Other U.S. sports leagues have made some progress in developing business plans for in-market streaming, but actual digital delivery of those games locally also remains a work in progress in many markets. At the beginning of the NBA season, Fox Sports signed a deal to stream that league’s games. Fox also signed deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and AT&T to stream NBA games. But the distributors’ rollout of that service has gone slower than expected, and only AT&T U-verse and some small Comcast systems in the Southwest offer NBA in-market live streaming. Fox Sports’ RSN group is negotiating with the NHL, but with that league soon to start its postseason, any deal would be for 2014-15 at the earliest.

“I’m still a little baffled,” as to why baseball in-market streaming is so limited, Shanks said. “The fans are probably a little baffled.”


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