'Click me out to the ballgame'

America's oldest pastime is a believer in new media. That's the upshot of Major League Baseball's Advanced Media's (MLBAM) decision to offer live audio Webcasts of all MLB games, as well as a number of video offerings, to Internet users. And MLB is betting not only that, if MLB builds it, they will come, but that they'll be willing to pay for the privilege.

Video feeds of games have not been available before, but live audio had been available without charge through hometown radio stations. MLB, however, has always had the option to supersede those rights. It has chosen to exercise that option.

Although the decision to start charging for the games made headlines last week, MLB doesn't expect a fan or station backlash. "We've received no complaints from stations so far," says MLBAM spokesman Jim Gallagher.

The MLB move into new media last week was like a double steal, with an announcement on Monday concerning a three-year deal with RealNetworks to make RealNetworks the platform for the online services. Audio Webcasts of all regular-season games will be available for a subscription fee of $9.95 per year, something Bowman believes baseball fans will find a value. Subscribers will also receive a $10 coupon for the MLB.com store. "Because of that, our feeling is, we're giving away access to the audio Webcasts," says Gallagher.

"What we're providing with searchable, customizable video," he adds, "makes us the leader in the sports field in terms of what we're providing people."

Although the offering of live audio Webcasts promises to help day-game fans chained to a desk at work, it's the video that has the most potential.

RealNetworks will serve as the format for that service, too. The service is primarily designed for consumers with Internet access above 200 kb/s, but those with dial-up modems will still be able to access the highlights, according to Bowman.

Virage, which markets technology that can automatically index and catalog material, signed a one-year, multimillion-dollar deal to help get the entire 2001 season online. That's more than 2,100 games and 7,500 hours of material.

The MLB plans to offer four types of service. The first is Gameday, which allows users to go to MLB.com and see a number of highlights, free, from games played that day. For a fee, they can also do a "SuperSearch" for a any player, league or situation. For example, it's possible to request to see all Mark McGwire home runs hit on a Sunday against left-handed pitchers. "That will be a customizable service that will allow fans to plug in specific players," adds Gallagher. "There will be a subscription charge for that, but we don't know what, except that it will be single digit per month."

Two other features include "Condensed Game," which will distill the action from the usual three-hour game, and a Highlight tool that will allow dragging and dropping team highlights from individual team sites.

Carlos Montalvo, chief marketing officer of Virage, says that sports, including baseball, are a natural fit for the indexing and search capabilities offered by the Virage Video Application. "As all things analog go digital, content becomes currency, but not all content can be monetized or take full advantage of the Web. We think that sports content very much lends itself to this interactive experience that makes the content a brand as important as the broadcast itself."

The project promises to keep Virage busy beginning today, with approximately 15 games to do every two days, maybe more. A satellite farm in New Jersey will pull in the feeds within an hour after a game's completion and push them out to Virage interactive production facilities in New York and San Mateo, Calif., via FTP. Each game is assigned a producer who then oversees ingestion of the video. "Our Virage video logger with what we call our SmartEncode process automatically does the clipping, extracts the metadata from the audio track, and also time-aligns the statistics with SMPTE time code," says Montalvo.

The metadata for the video information (which will reside on Akamai servers) will sit on Virage's servers, which are hosted by Exodus. Then, when a person does a query or when a publishing decision is made, Virage points to the Akamai server to get the information.