MLB in retrograde

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I’m not always the quickest to notice changes in my surrounding environment, including the baseball component thereof, and I’ve had a lot (of really good things) going on that have necessarily kept me from fully jumping into the still-young MLB season thus far. Last night, I had a little window, though, so I dialed up the Tigers and Rays on MLB.tv, only to be met with a video-streaming brick wall. After a couple hours with tech support, I discovered that MLB Advanced Media (“MLBAM,” which produces MLB.tv) had discontinued service to the device model– a Lenovo tablet running Android– I’d purchased last year for the sole purpose of running MLB.tv. I have cancelled my subscription and demanded a refund.  

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MLB.tv is a basically intuitive, basically good service with a few significant limiting quirks. Its primary purpose is to allow users to stream live baseball games on an internet-connected device. There is a not-insignificant cost for this service, and users cannot watch games involving their local team. Additionally, if they want to watch on a mobile (i.e., cellular-connected) device, users have to pay an additional fee on top of their MLB.tv subscription to access the mobile app’s offerings.

Last year, MLBAM offered for the first time an individual team MLB.tv package that allowed subscribers to watch only their favorite team’s games– unless that team was their geographically local team, and also not including games in which their team played their geographically local team– for a (very slightly) reduced cost.

I decided to give it a go. After carefully reviewing the list of compatible devices (I already had an Amazon tablet, but it wasn’t on the list), I purchased one of them, signed up for the MLB.tv single-team package, and was on my way, enjoying most every moment of the Tigers falling just short of making the playoffs.

Sure, there were some unexpected technical disappointments, like the unavailability of the radio-feed overlay (which is available when using a desktop or laptop) or the inability to watch the MLB.tv free game of the day (which is available even to non-subscribers on a desktop or laptop), but I was mostly satisfied. When the service automatically renewed my subscription this winter, I didn’t think much of it. Another season of Detroit Tigers baseball was on the way, and I was looking forward to following along.

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Somewhere around the time MLBAM was automatically renewing my subscription, however, they also were busy discontinuing service to the tablet I’d bought for the sole purpose of using their product.

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This is a stunning decision, of which MLBAM provided no notice, and for which they provided no explanation. It feels like a shot landed right between the eyes. Why would they make it more difficult to use their product?

Absent an official explanation, I am left to my own imagination. Thus far, I’ve been able to think of two:

  1. Certain previously compatible devices cannot keep up with advances in the MLB.tv product, or
  2. MLBAM has business reasons for moving MLB.tv off certain types or brands of devices.

I don’t think either of these hold water. For the first, the 2017 MLB.tv product does not appear to be different from the 2016 version in any material respect. If the product has undergone a significant technical upgrade since last season, it is not apparent from the user experience.

Regarding the second, MLBAM– which has expanded beyond MLB to include NHL and PGA content– is a very significant business operator in the sports media world. Its revenue stream likely is the single biggest issue lurking in baseball’s current labor negotiations. Ostensibly independent baseball sabermetric websites also prize their relationships with MLBAM, which is the source of the all-important Statcast data they need for their published analysis. (I learned that lesson when I had an article for another site about a partnership between MLBAM and one of its platform partners yanked, presumably because it bore a too-critical tone.) Even if there are high-level corporate reasons to favor certain device brands or types over others, such a decision that results in the restriction of consumer options does not serve the fans’ interest, and I reject this potential explanation for that reason.

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Throughout his brief tenure, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has emphasized the need to attract and engage a younger baseball audience. To that end, he has focused on the pace and length of games, expressing a desire to increase the former and decrease the latter.

After dancing around his chosen means to that end without undertaking significant action during his first two years in office, Manfred stepped out just before the 2017 season started by making the most significant change to the sport since 1879 when he eliminated the four-pitch intentional walk.

From a game-pace/length perspective, it was a practically meaningless change, something Manfred himself admitted at the time. It also isn’t the sort of aesthetic twist that’s likely to drum up youth excitement the way, say, trampolines in the outfield might. (Got to catch that Second-Wave Slamball excitement!) As I wrote when Manfred announced his new IBB rule, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath for changes that actually might help draw a younger audience to the sport, like removing local broadcast blackouts on streaming devices or decreasing the cost of attending games.

For all its flaws, MLB.tv has been the gold standard in live sports streaming, but, absent significant reforms, it seems likely to be surpassed, as baseball itself already has been, by the NFL, which has been working on free streaming options through existing platforms like Yahoo, Twitter, and now Amazon, buttressed by a developing infrastructure of local network streams (cable subscription still mostly required, for the time being).

Baseball is a fine game, and to the extent people will like it, they probably will do so for what it is. I’m not opposed to all measures designed, for example, to reduce the time between pitches (or the time spent on commercial breaks). Rather than changing the game he wants people to watch, though, Manfred ought to change the way people can watch the game, obviously by making it easier for them to do so. That approach would allow him to demonstrate more confidence in the quality of the sport he oversees. Instead, his approach has made the national conversation around baseball into one about how boring it currently is. Probably not the best notion for the league’s commissioner to be pushing, especially because no amount of reform is going to be able to radically remake baseball into some sort of rapid, flowing game like hockey or basketball and still have it be recognizable as “baseball.” He’s painted himself into a public-relations corner, and the sooner he switches from emphasizing perceived negatives to emphasizing positives, such as (hypothetical) proposals to make the game even easier to watch and interact with, the better.

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Until then, I’ll be upset with MLBAM over this decrease in access. I’m most upset with myself, though. After years of running this site– and being a sports fan– without any access to a television or reasonable live streaming access, I became so suckered into MLB.tv after just one season that the unwanted deprivation of the technology had me embarrassingly throwing a tantrum, writing a 1,300-word essay on the subject, and considering abandoning the sport altogether. It’s not breaking news that being a fan of a sports team makes no economically rational sense (please don’t get me started on public funding for new stadiums right now), but most of us just can’t help it. No, I will not invest in more hardware I don’t otherwise need or want just so I can have the privilege of paying an automatically renewing MLB.tv fee every February, but neither will I stop following my team and this sport simply because of regressive decision making by its administrators. Sure, that may mean subjecting myself and my new expensive paperweight to the unpredictability of fringe websites hosted on servers in former Soviet republics, but I tried to do the right thing, MLBAM. Feel free to send an email when it’s ok for me to return from the Eastern Bloc. You have my contact information.

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Related
Rob Manfred’s Use Your Illusion Tour
Pace of Play Isn’t Going Away (via Baseball Prospectus)
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Ejection Overruled: Evaluating MLB’s attempt to eliminate in-game dissent
MLB Rule 21(d)

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2 thoughts on “MLB in retrograde

  1. Pingback: Sports Law Roundup – 5/5/2017 | ALDLAND

  2. Pingback: Dr. Doolittle knows the cure for baseball’s current ills, to the extent baseball currently is possessed of or by ills | ALDLAND

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