Spring is here! The smell of freshly cut grass, the warm weather, and the crack of a wooden bat all signify the beginning of spring and Major League Baseball (MLB) season.
All the while, ardent baseball fans have waited patiently since October for the first pitch to be thrown out. This year’s first pitch will have a more commercial feel to it than in previous years, however. YouTube TV will be partnering with MLB for a season-long sponsorship called “First Pitch” during games broadcast on MLB Network and MLB.tv. This is part of a media blitz by YouTube TV to increase its brand awareness over the course of this season.
YouTube TV’s foray into the sports broadcasting and advertising market follows a new trend of social media and digital media companies trying to cut their slice of the sports broadcasting pie. An arms race has erupted over the past couple years for control over live streaming professional sports games. Amazon, Facebook, Google (owner of YouTube), and Twitter have all begun to move beyond their original business models and have bought their way into the sports broadcasting world.
In 2016, Twitter bought online streaming rights for NFL’s Thursday Night Football games for a mere $10 million. Then in 2017, Amazon quintupled the price by offering $50 million for the very same rights. Facebook was recently outbid to the tune of $600 million by Star India for the rights to broadcast Indian cricket games. These hefty numbers show these digital media companies are serious about poaching the final raft keeping the traditional TV model afloat: sports.
Some experts have suggested that 2021 may be the tipping point in the war between TV and digital media. Most of the popular sports leagues are locked into streaming and TV contracts until 2021. Once these contracts expire this opportunity could be a hanging curveball thrown to the digital media companies that they could knock out of the park. (Pun intended.)
In celebration of the start of a new baseball season, let’s take a swing at how MLB is embracing this brave new digital media world.
A Changing Media World Collides with Baseball
Major League Baseball has always been resistant to change, yet it has survived an enormous amount of change since its inception in 1869. One of the beautiful things about the sport is that, at its very core, it is still the same game that was played wayback at its birth. Since the sport is so uniquely wrapped in American tradition, MLB preserves the sport’s essence by moving at a snail’s pace whenever attempting to change anything. Most major professional sports adopted some form of instant replay years ago in order to review calls on field, yet baseball only adopted the replay system fully in 2014 before “experimenting” with it for a full six years.
MLB also has another problem; its viewers are among the oldest in professional sports. The average age of the MLB’s audience is 57 whereas sports like the NBA tend to skew younger with an average viewer age of 42. This means that MLB has to work harder to capture the elusive younger demographics, growing increasingly concerned about the attention spans of its younger viewers. While older viewers tend to appreciate and understand the stops in action, many younger viewers require more constant stimulation that a traditional broadcast simply cannot provide.
Since the arrival of the new commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, in 2015, there has been a number of quick changes to not only the game but the way in which people watch the game. Manfred could institute a “pitch clock” in order to speed up the game since a primary complaint is that the games last way too long. This is an incredibly important point.
Daniel Durbin, Director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, believes that the MLB is making the right moves by pushing into the digital media scene. However, Durbin states that changing the game’s pace with ideas like the “pitch clock” might not affect viewership all that much. A 2017 study by Magna Global for Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal found that some 43% of Americans surveyed say that pace of play changes won’t impact their viewing habits.
Despite its reluctance to move into the future, baseball has always been able to adapt to the new media landscape. From radios to television to the modern digital age, each successive era of media has seen baseball continue unabated in its popularity amongst Americans. With the emergence of mobile devices, MLB has begun to shift many of its broadcasts onto the digital media stage due to the diversification of viewing options.
The Race to Broadcast Baseball
It’s no secret that the way in which we consume media has changed dramatically in the past two decades. TV is no longer the king of media and digital has taken its place. In fact, 2017 marked the tipping point in which global media advertising spending in digital surpassed that of broadcast TV. Many professional sports have been unenthusiastic about moving into the digital space, but with the recent increasing interest from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, and other media companies, the leagues have begun to sing a different tune.
YouTube TV began a sponsorship with MLB in 2017 where they were the primary sponsor of the World Series. They simulcasted the games on both FOX and YouTube TV for its subscribers and the advertising for the TV service was everywhere you could see on the broadcast. MLB reported that this engagement and content strategy pushed via YouTube TV generated over 1 billion views and helped improve its visibility to a younger audience. As a result, YouTube TV will pursue the same advertising strategy for the 2018 and 2019 World Series and now carry MLB Network on its $40 package.
In order to compete with the likes of YouTube TV, Facebook recently upped the ante by securing 25 exclusive MLB games. In 2017, Facebook broadcasted one Friday MLB game per week but it did not have exclusive rights to that game. Now Facebook has 25 exclusive games that will be broadcast on its new Facebook Watch platform. The “Facebook season opener” will be on April 4th between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets. All streamed games will be available via MLB Live Games page and they will all be afternoon matchups.
Both tech companies and MLB see an opportunity to capitalize on America’s pastime in the new digital age. MLB has uncharacteristically taken the lead in allowing games to be exclusively broadcast on digital media platforms. MLB is moving into the post-TV landscape and hopes to buck the trend of lower TV ratings across all sports.
Can baseball adapt and change quickly enough? Let’s be honest, if the Chicago Cubs can win a World Series, then anything is possible in this brave new digital future.