Baseball VOD: Home Run

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With the 2008 Major League Baseball season nearly a month old, it's curious that the regional sports networks have not fully embraced baseball's recent decision to allow cable systems to offer video-on-demand packages of local game telecasts.

After dragging its feet for years on the matter, the league last month decided to allow teams to offer replays of its games on demand for 48 hours after their conclusions, or until the next live game of each team is played.

Some regional networks, though, have been hesitant to offer such packages to operators for fear that such content will cannibalize their own advertiser-sponsored network game replays.

But history says that those regional nets need not fear new technology.

Back before Al Gore discovered the Internet — when a cell phone was something found on a jailhouse wall and televisions were more a luxury than a cultural necessity — young children used to sit down with their fathers in front of the radio and listen to the boys of summer play.

Even when television sets became the norm, and broadcast networks began televising live games, baseball fans still tuned in their radios to hear the exploits of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

In the late 1990s, when DirecTV — and eventually cable operators — began offering baseball's now $200 “MLB Extra Innings” subscription-game package, followed several years later by a $90 Web version of the package on MLB.tv, the regional sports networks didn't go out of business even though those packages allowed fans to watch virtually every live baseball game from around the country.

The truth is each new platform that baseball has allowed to distribute its games hasn't sent any of the older technologies to the clubhouse showers.

Comcast, which has been swinging for the fences with its on-demand offerings in entertainment for years, quickly jumped at the opportunity to launch on-demand packages for the San Francisco Giants, through Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, and the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, via its Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

But the 14 regional networks owned and operated by Fox Sports Net with pro baseball team deals — as well as independent, team-operated networks such as the New York Yankees' YES Network — have not moved as fast.

Concerned that on-demand replays of the games will cut into audiences for the network's own replay telecasts, the networks are understandably trying to find the best way to offer viewers more value while protecting their own business interests.

The same dynamic is at play with the potential live-game streaming rights that baseball is considering pitching to regional networks and cable operators. Regionals fear streaming live games on Web sites, either their own or those of cable operators, would throw a curve ball into their ratings-rich live game telecasts.

While Comcast is offering its on-demand packages free to its consumers, some other regional sports network executives are pitching premium on-demand and Internet steaming alternatives to teams in an effort to protect their core business while providing choice to fans.

Whatever the solution, the regional nets and the teams should find it soon. Fans today have an unprecedented number of viewing options via television, online and mobile phones — and they want to see their favorite programs and events on all those platforms.

The more quickly cable operators and regional sports networks can offer content from baseball — and all pro sports for that matter — live and on demand via linear and Web-based services, the more eyeballs they can eventually monetize through advertising and other revenue opportunities.

Ultimately, this is a home run for all players involved.

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