Tradition-Bound Baseball is Streaming Into the Future

Tim Cook Apple Baseball
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces 'Friday Night Baseball'

Major League Baseball, which nearly knocked itself down and out with an unpopular labor lockout that threatened to delay or cancel the season, is dusting itself off and taking swings at streaming, rounding the technology bases and heading for home before most of the other major sports.

To some extent, the deals are a money grab, with baseball re-slicing its national TV pie to generate more revenue from streaming services desperate for fresh content. But they are also an attempt to adopt changes in technology to attract a new, younger audience with an aggressiveness the often-sleepy sport has not displayed. 

Even before Major League Baseball last week reached its new collective bargaining agreement, clearing the way for a full 162-game season, Apple said it had a deal to stream exclusive baseball doubleheaders on Friday nights.

Also: ESPN Changes ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ Lineup, Gives A-Rod a Manning-Like Telecast

“We’re really excited about this,” said Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, America’s most valuable company. “This is going to be the best way to watch baseball on your iPhone, iPad, Mac and anywhere that Apple TV Plus is available.”

Apple will have a pre-game and post-game show on Fridays. It will also be streaming MLB Big Inning, a live show featuring highlights and look-ins every weeknight during the season. 

“Apple TV Plus offers an exciting new platform to fans that allows a wider audience to connect with the game,” said Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer.

Reports also surfaced that MLB was talking to NBC Sports about putting games on streaming service Peacock, and to a lesser extent on NBC. Early reports indicated Peacock would stream games on Monday and Wednesday night (games ESPN used to televise before it cut back on its commitment to baseball). Later stories said indicated Peacock would get a new set of 18 early Sunday games —  11:30 a.m. ET — that were created as part of the new MLB contract with baseball players.

The money is pretty good. According to Forbes, Apple annually is paying a $55 million rights fee and agreeing to buy $30 million worth of advertising. while Peacock is hocking up $30 million a year.

The two streaming deals increase MLB’s annual national TV money by 26% to $1.96 billion, which will pay for a lot of pine tar.

The deals could also be good for baseball by giving the growing number of cord-cutters access to baseball's field of dreams. Those cord-cutters tend to be the kind of younger viewers baseball needs to stay relevant. Streaming also gives those younger viewers more access to interactive features–stats and games–and increasingly betting.

In addition to its national deals, baseball action might also be getting streamed at the local and regional level this season.

Baseball will continue to be seen nationally on traditional TV via Fox, ESPN and Turner Sports.

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Bally Sports regional sports networks are rushing to put out a new direct-to-consumer product by the end of the second quarter, coinciding with the start of baseball season. Sinclair said it has rights to go direct-to-consumer with four baseball teams it currently telecasts. Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has brushed back Sinclair, saying the broadcaster didn’t necessarily have enough rights to start a streaming service. There were also reports MLB was considering creating its own streaming service that would handle regional and local games.

Comcast NBCU’s regional sports networks also announced plans for a direct-to-consumer product, but quickly returned to first base, calling its announcement inadvertent and misleading.

Amazon, which owns a piece of the YES Network, is also again streaming some Yankee games and there were reports that Sinclair and the Cubs, which have a joint venture with The Marquee Network, were also talking about a streaming direct-to-consumer service.

Streaming baseball games locally has been problematic because of complicated claims about where local markets start and end, making it difficult for fans of a team close enough to listen to a game on a full-powered radio station to legally watch a game online.

Those problems are a bit ironic because baseball was an early leader in creating streaming technology and consumer apps with Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which was formed in 2000. It launched a streaming service, MLB.TV, in 2003. 

Also: Sinclair Reportedly in Talks With the Chicago Cubs for DTC Service

MLB Advanced Media spun off its streaming technology business as BAMTech in 2015. It is now owned by The Walt Disney Co. and serves as the backbone for Disney Plus and ESPN Plus.

Sports is becoming an increasingly important piece of ammunition in the media’s streaming wars. NBCUniversal’s Peacock streamed the Olympics and Super Bowl and Paramount’s Paramount Plus streams its NFL regular season and playoff games. ESPN added streaming content in last year’s deals with the NFL and National Hockey League. Soccer and MMA are also draws for streaming services.

To top it all off, Amazon this season will be streaming  the exclusive national telecasts of Thursday Night Football. Amazon is staffing up with on-air talent, but reportedly did not bid enough for Fox’s top team of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck. Buck and Aikman are reportedly headed for Disney’s ESPN, where they’d broadcast the 2026 and 2030 Super Bowls, which are expected to be on ESPN, ABC and streaming. An ESPN spokesman had no comment.

It’s a brave new world for sports, and by going with its fastball, instead of a knuckleball, baseball may be leading the way. ■

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.