Two decades after MLB.TV began broadcasting sports, the blackout problem persists

The first game to be broadcast live was the Yankees’ victory over the Texas Rangers on August 26, 2002. getty images

As MLB.TV approached its 20th anniversary last Friday, Gregg Klayman recalled a line from a 2002 article about the league’s then-embryonic service. ,” said Klayman, MLB’s senior vice president of product and content strategy, who in 2002 handled various elements of the new service as the league’s manager of fantasy and interactive games. “We had to laugh through the negative press and know it was probably going to be bumpy for a little bit.”

Twenty years after MLB became the first professional sports league to broadcast a regular season game live, MLB.TV’s steady climb continues. This season, it’s on pace for 11 billion minutes watched through September, after reaching 10 billion minutes for the first time last season. MLB has also boosted the broadcast industry at large with its influence and direct influence to help power other platforms over the past two decades.

One obstacle that continues to cloud its streaming potential, however, is the blackout policy, which prohibits live streaming of broadcasts in the market. MLB has a territorial rights system to determine what qualifies as in-market across the country; all of Iowa, for example, is within the cutoff region of six different clubs: the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins and White Sox.

League officials wouldn’t go into specifics about how or when they see the policy either ending or relaxing, but MLB Chief Revenue Officer Noah Garden offered some insight into what might be on the horizon: “I would say there will be more to come on that front. … I hope at some point to have the market [streaming] also available in the product.”

With termination clauses built into existing agreements the league has with its broadcast partners, Kenny Gersh, MLB’s executive vice president of business development, emphasized the complexity of finding a solution.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube, where one dynamic changes and there are four other ripple effects. But we’re laser-focused on that topic and trying to see how we can navigate the rights landscape to ensure that anyone around the globe who wants to watch a Major League Baseball game has a seamless way for them. done this.”

Outage issues aside, MLB.TV has largely succeeded in that mission — which prompts some nostalgia from league executives.

“When we started this thing, it was a global disaster,” said Garden, who served as senior vice president of e-commerce at MLB Advanced Media during MLB.TV’s earliest stages. “I remember buffering. I remember the crash.”

The early investment in Major League Baseball Advanced Media (or BAM), which oversaw MLB.TV, included $120 million raised by the 30 clubs — $1 million from each club over four years beginning in 2000.

About 30,000 fans tuned in to watch the webcast of the New York Yankees’ 10-3 victory over the Texas Rangers in the Bronx on August 26, 2002, which came three years before YouTube began and five years before Netflix began streaming. The video player had a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels – the lowest possible resolution. “And if you went any bigger, it looked like a mosaic of pixels,” Klayman said. “It was horrible.”

The next year, MLB aired the entire season, picking up 100,000 subscribers — priced at $79.95 for a full-season package — in the process. From there, the milestones began to pile up.

MLB was the first league to link its broadcast venues in television quality (2005); first to broadcast live 720p HD video (2009); the first to stream live games and a subscription product to the iPhone (2009); first live video on connected devices (2009, Roku); the first to stream live games and a subscription product to the iPad (2010); and the first to stream live video to a game console (2010, PlayStation 3), among many other achievements.

Along the way, MLB hasn’t been shy about helping others get their broadcast products off the ground. Gersh was an executive at CBS Digital working directly with BAM to broadcast March Madness in 2006 before joining MLB that August. BAM’s thinking at the time and in the years that followed followed a well-worn maxim: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“If a fan goes to stream March Madness on CBS and it’s a poor quality experience, they would be less likely to buy MLB.TV,” Gersh said. “It could be completely unrelated things, but people would think, ‘Well, sports streaming isn’t ready, I’m not going to pay X dollars for that.’ So by becoming the backbone of live streaming on the Internet, it was to help MLB.TV and it led to all these other things.”

BAM did similar business providing white label solutions to ESPN, WWE and HBO, among others, which led in 2015 to the creation of BAM Tech, a separate media company that was eventually acquired by Disney in 2017.

“The proudest thing about me and my career when I look at all the streaming services that are out there now,” Gersh said, “is how many of them we were involved in launching.”

Still, MLB.TV has a lot to celebrate. It marked the occasion on August 26 with fireworks animations on its homepage.

“Who knows what the next 20 years will bring,” Garden said. “But looking back over the last 20 years, it’s been a whirlwind and fun ride.”

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