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Apple Makes History with Friday Night Baseball Debut

At 6:30 ET Friday night, Apple TV Plus officially joined the intertwined worlds of live-streamed video, big advertising and pro sports. A static “coming up” graphic backed with the white noise of a buzzing crowd abruptly switched to an in-studio pre-game show for Apple’s first Friday Night Baseball streamcast, featuring host Laura Gardner and former big leaguer Carlos Pena. 

It was a bit of history, marking the debut of the world’s most valuable public company into multiple sectors where it has had little or no previous experience. The implications for Apple’s increasingly significant SVOD service are substantial. For everyone else, the implications are potentially huge. 

Also read: Apple TV Plus Joins MLB’s Team … and Live Sports Will Never Be The Same

Services such as ESPN Plus, Peacock, HBO Max and Paramount Plus have long had significant sports offerings, including The Masters, English Premier League soccer, March Madness college basketball, the NFL, NHL, NBA and more. That’s mostly a legacy of their broadcast and cable owners, a natural segue to a new distribution platform for programming they’re already doing. Amazon is taking over NFL Thursday Night Football games for $1 billion a year, after running Fox’s game feed for the past few seasons.

For Apple, though, this all represents a new world, even if it doesn’t yet have any other sports or any other live, ad-supported programming. But it’s hard to believe this will be the last live sports programming Apple acquires, now that it has opened up this world.

What happens if Apple, the deepest of deep pockets, starts bidding for other live sports against companies with smaller wallets and ambitions? 

What’s it mean, for instance, for just-launched Warner Bros. Discovery, which has March Madness, NBA and NHL rights. But as he settles into the CEO chair of the newly merged company, David Zaslav is trying to cut $3 billion in “synergies,” mashes together Discovery Plus and HBO Max, and figures out how to pay down $55 billion in debt on a company that generates less than $50 billion in revenue. Does he start to scrimp on live sports? Commission fewer expensive HBO Max shows? What happens there and with other smaller operations will be worth tracking.   

More generally, does this open up the possibility of an ad-supported version of subscription-only TV Plus, much like those from most of its competition? That seems less likely, as Apple continues to differentiate TV Plus with no ads and only high-quality originals that can win awards and critical love. An ad-supported version would be a very big change of strategy. 

Ads Could Make Even Baseball Interesting

Even if Apple doesn’t go that far, Friday Night Baseball changes Apple’s story about advertising on its platforms, and maybe not in a good way. The company has long made a great deal of marketing hay out of its indifference, even hostility, to targeted ads, most notably by ending the IDFA mobile tracking tags that companies such as Meta relied upon to invasively generate bottomless pools of personal data from Facebook and Instagram users. 

If Apple goes too hard into advertising around sports, which in modern times are substantially built around ad-friendly pacing and structures, will that undercut its broader position on advertising? 

As an example: the broadcasts touted the ability for fans to get daily video highlights of their favorite team’s most recent game dropped into their Apple News Plus feed. Downside: the highlights come with broadcast-length video ads that are roughly as long as the clips, and run first. 

Enduring a 30-second ad to watch a 37-second highlight doesn’t feel like a hit in the making. Apple News Plus has had ads, but discreet, static ones that blend in among the news stories. These video ads are the epitome of intrusive.  

So Apple has both a potential new revenue source, and a potential marketing challenge. It also has a lengthy roster of new ad partners, including many of the usual suspects: GEICO, Budweiser, Mastercard, the Marines, T-Mobile, Subway, even a CDW ad that included a shoutout for Microsoft Surface computers. And given the times we’re in, the ‘cast featured multiple ads from a blockchain company offering NFT-backed digital baseball cards.  

The many, many programming breaks provided lots of time for Apple TV Plus to promote its other offerings at length, including a behind-the-scenes piece about Oscar Best Picture winner CODA, highly regarded newer shows such as Severance and Slow Horses, four upcoming sports documentaries, and a five-night dinosaur fest voiced by the omnipresent David Attenborough

Amusingly, Game 2’s Houston Astros even featured a player, Jose Siri, who shares a name with Apple’s digital assistant. Now that's product placement.

As for the streamcast itself, produced with MLB.com's experienced team, the production was generally quite competent, with only a few technical glitches, some genuinely delightful unscripted moments and nice improvements, including more diverse crews, by gender, race, age, and, in the case of fuchsia-toned analyst Hannah Keyser, hair color.

Among the announcers, two stood out. The first game’s play-by-play by Melanie Newman, who normally does Orioles games, was top-notch, with the authority and even vocal tone of the NBA Hall of Fame commentator Doris Burke. 

Former big leaguer Hunter Pence substantially improved the blowout second game with his color commentary, livened by his playing experience and distinctive personality. Pence was a quirky, much-beloved fixture of three World Series-winning teams for the San Francisco Giants a decade ago. He’s clearly found a worthwhile new career opportunity. 

One fun improvement was the wide variety of statistics rotating across the corner of the screen. The stats changed pitch by pitch, assessing, for instance, the probability that a given batter, with a given pitch count and pitcher, would get on base. It’s not hard to see stats like that become part of sponsor BetMGM’s in-game prop bets going forward. 

There were plenty of shoutouts to Apple products, and exclusive use on each team’s bench of iPads for players to review video of their at-bats. ■

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.