The widespread distribution of live Major League Baseball games via a number of television, Internet and radio platforms has raised concerns among regional sports network executives, who fear a cannibalization of viewers from local baseball telecasts.
In past seasons baseball fans could only access out-of-market games through the $169 “MLB Extra Innings” subscription package offered by In Demand, DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network.
But last year, baseball decided to get into the distribution game through its MLB.com Web site, which launched a $79.95 service that allows viewers to download 97% of all baseball games. (All are out-of-market contests.)
And this year, XM Radio hit the airwaves with satellite audio carriage of most baseball games to some 3.7 million subscribers as part of a $12.95 monthly subscription price.
Fox Network Group CEO Tony Vinciquerra said he’s concerned that the value of the company’s combined $600-million annual investment in national baseball telecasts on the Fox broadcast network and local telecasts through 16 owned-and-affiliated FSN regional sports networks will diminish significantly in the near future.
Vinciquerra said when Fox signed a six-year, $2.5-billion baseball broadcast television deal in 2001 — which he described as a money loser for the company — there were no provisions for distribution of games beyond the out-of-market packages.
“We are the largest supporter of MLB in terms of dollars, and we feel like we’re being taken advantage a bit by this incremental creeping up of diminishing rights, particularly on the RSNs,” he said. “We are not happy with what [baseball] is doing. They’re pushing the envelope at every corner to increase the distribution of these games, and we don’t think it’s fair.”
Comcast SportsNet, whose RSNs in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore/Washington, D.C., distribute local major-league team games, is also concerned about the impact services such as MLB.TV will have on its telecasts.
“As a rights-holder we are concerned and it’s something that we will monitor,” Comcast SportsNet spokesman Chris Helein said. “We would only expect the quality of those broadcasts online will improve, which will only enhance our concern.”
Looking ahead, observers also wonder if MLB will put a further strain on rights-holders once its TV network, which is scheduled to launch this fall, becomes established and may look to air live games. Previously, MLB officials have indicated that the network would not initially feature live game coverage.
Executives from MLB could not be reached for further comment by press time.
While Vinciquerra said Fox has yet to see any adverse effects on ratings or advertising rates due to the proliferation of games on other platforms — ratings for Fox regional sports network games were flat in April — he said that will most likely change as people become more familiar with these emerging technologies.
“It hasn’t been fully accepted by the consumer, but when it does there will be a diminishing of our ratings,” he said. “We’re still paying the same rate to the teams and the same rate to baseball and we will eventually see less viewership.”
Neither Comcast nor Fox would specify what actions, if any, it may take against MLB to rectify the situation.
Adding insult to the injury, Vinciquerra said, is that most footage used to support the league’s MLB.TV streaming service is derived from the regional sports network feeds.
He added that baseball argues the increase in platforms for games would provide increased advertising opportunities.
“But the advertisers in the regions are buying advertising in those regions and not in cities outside the region,” he said.
OTHERS AREN’T SUFFERING
Some other industry observers with skin in the game don’t feel that the game is suffering because of increased access to live programming.
DirecTV Inc. spokesman Robert Mercer said the satellite-TV service enjoyed its best year ever for MLB package subscriptions last year despite the presence of MLB.TV.
“The game is so popular now fans are likely using both platforms to watch their favorite games,” he said. “In terms of future impact, we’ll keep our eye on it, as technology evolves, with better quality streaming and greater penetration of broadband into the home.”
Some contend the game is potentially gaining new fans through exploitation of new delivery mechanisms.
“Ultimately, you want to be able to give the viewer access to games on whatever devices they want,” said In Demand president Rob Jacobson, who added it’s too early to determine whether the proliferation of baseball distribution outlets will have an adverse effect on the Extra Innings service.
GAMES ON PDAS?
“If I happen to be home one night and want to watch the game I want to be able to turn on the television set. On the other hand, if I’m working late and I want to watch it in the corner of my computer screen, I should be able to do that. Or if I’m out with the kids coaching a Little League game and I want to be able to flip to my PDA and watch it there, I should be able to do that too,” Jacobson said.
XM Radio vice president of corporate affairs Chance Patterson said the company’s 11-year, multimillion-dollar deal with baseball — which includes playoff and World Series games — provides fans with another platform to enjoy baseball.
Along with game broadcasts, the satellite service offers a 24-hour dedicated baseball information channel as well as a dedicated Spanish-language sports channel.
“Baseball was born on the radio, and out of all the major-league sports it’s the one that best translates onto radio,” Patterson said.
“We have always viewed MLB as the crown jewel of sports radio and in our business we do have a majority of our subs who listen in the car, so what’s happening on the television isn’t relevant.”
Still, Vinciquerra feels the league is overexposing itself.
“Having it be ubiquitous is not always best,” he said. “NASCAR and the [National Football League] have mastered the scarcity sells concept, and arguably they are the most successful sports franchises, in terms of driving viewership.”