Now On Demand: Baseball

Major League Baseball is pitching its games on demand.

For the first time, the league is allowing regional sports networks to offer replays of their live baseball telecasts on demand for 24 hours after the game. Comcast SportsNet Bay Area last week was the first to hit the field, offering an on-demand package of San Francisco Giants content that included replays of the Giants-Dodgers games as well as classic Giants games and related programming, according to network officials.

The VOD-focused operator also launched video-on-demand packages via Comcast SportsNet Chicago for Cubs and White Sox games, said CSN spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick.

In September, MLB relaxed rules on VOD offerings, which had previously been controlled by MLB Advanced Media, Sports Business Daily reported. Comcast's Northern California network, formerly FSN Bay Area, launched its on-demand package opening day with a replay of the Giants-Dodgers game.

“We think San Francisco is a prime location for new technology and exploring new avenues … this is one advantage of being teamed up with Comcast Cable, the leader of VOD,” said CSN Bay Area general manager Ted Griggs, who added the network is currently talking to the Oakland Athletics about a potential VOD package as well. “To be able to team up with [the Giants] and use that new technology to reach a different audience will be fantastic.”

“It's different for Comcast, but I don't think the rest of the regionals are nearly so bullish on VOD games. VOD is more important to the operators than it is to the regionals,” said an executive at one such network. “The regionals need to monetize this in some meaningful way.”

He suggested there would have to be dips in several buckets to make VOD games a worthwhile venture, relative to advertising in the form of presenting and other sponsors for the on-demand contests; a monthly subscription VOD package, perhaps at $2.99, in which the regional and operator would split the revenue; and as a negotiating chip for leverage with other deals.

A spokesman for Fox Sports Net said the programmer — which has cable rights to 14 MLB teams — is in discussions with baseball regarding on-demand offerings.

Comcast Cable spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said the network is also talking to the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets about VOD opportunities through the regionals in those markets, CSN Philadelphia and SportsNet New York.

Jim Liberatore, president of SportsTime Ohio, which televises Cleveland Indians games, said the network is offering additional VOD fare — such pitching, fielding, batting and running tips with Tribe players shot during spring training in Winter Haven, Fla. Cox is the first affiliate to come on board, and conversations are ongoing with other distributors.

However, STO doesn't plan on offering on-demand game action unless its a special contest with a long shelf life, like a no-hitter. Otherwise, Liberatore doesn't want VOD contests to eat into the network's noon encores of Indians games. “We do some ratings with the replays,” he said.

Fans in the metro New York area are unlikely to see VOD replays of New York Yankees games this season. Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network chief operating officer Ray Hopkins said the service is “contemplating [VOD deployment],” but he doesn't “see anything happening in the 2008 baseball season. Potentially, we could do something in 2009, but we don't believe in free VOD.”

On deck for the regional sports networks is broadband streaming rights. Right now MLB — which offers live streaming of games through MLB.TV — is not offering up similar local rights to regional sports networks, although several executives who wish to remain anonymous say those rights maybe more important than on demand linear rights. One executive believes that a broadband accord will be struck sometime this year, with the first pitch on regional offerings coming in 2009.

Regional sports networks could offer such rights for a fee on their respective Web sites or enhance their value to operators by offering live streaming games via providers' high-speed broadband services, such as Time Warner Cable's Road Runner or Cablevision's Optimum Online. The risk is that the games could cannibalize ratings for live telecasts.

Regional sports network consultant Lee Berke believes that the leagues and the networks will work out some form of local digital package within the next year. “Ultimately, if you're a viewer you just want to a see a game telecast come across the screen and you don't care which screen it is,” he said. “The leagues and the networks are going to have to figure a way to serve the needs of their viewers.”

MLB officials didn't return phone calls.

Comcast last April paid $570 million to acquire Cablevision Systems' 60% interest in FSN Bay Area and 50% interest in FSN New England. Fox Sports Net retains a minority stake in Comcast Bay Area. Comcast owns 100% of the New England network, which was also rebranded.

In December, the Giants purchased a 20% to 25% interest in the network, taken equally from Comcast and Fox's ownership stakes, according to executives close to the network.