The future of MLB game broadcasts is still being developed, as teams explore a variety of strategies to reach listeners and viewers while also monetizing a valuable asset.
The experimentation can be seen both on the radio and television sides of the equation, as tech and the emergence of robust and reliable streaming media has opened up new avenues of distribution past a recent model of reaching fans through traditional regional sports networks. But, despite some predictions of more MLB teams using their new ability to sell and manage their own streaming rights, we’re seeing little of that strategy for 2020.
(A little background. MLB teams decided to move ahead with in-market streaming for 2020 and beyond after a vote this fall. Previously MLB controlled the rights to in-market streaming and sold them separately from the broadcast contracts teams signed with over-the-air and cable broadcasters. The move means that teams can structure their own in-market streaming deals, either with over-the-air and cable broadcasters or directly to consumers.)
In theory, the ability to directly view gameday broadcasts should be an essential part of the team-fan relationship—one additional way to monetize that relationship beyond actual game attendance and merchandise sales. But so far only one team has stepped forward with a streaming strategy for 2020: the New York Yankees and Amazon, now the owners of the YES Network, will broadcast 21 games for certain Amazon Prime subscribers, as simulcasts of the YES Network production.
But the broadcasts come with a big catch: the games will be available to fans residing in the Yankees’ dedicated broadcast area of the state of New York, north and central New Jersey, Connecticut, and northeastern Pennsylvania. If you’re a Yankees fan in Tampa, you’re out of luck. This shows a limitation of the decision for teams to offer in-market streaming: MLB.TV still controls nationwide streaming. But it’s pretty clear MLB.TV is a pretty unpopular service as it stands right now thanks to the bizarre blackout rules designed to protect regional sports networks. Try watching the Reds in Charlotte or the A’s or Angels in Las Vegas via MLB.TV. And just ask the Blue Jays fans who won’t be able to watch any game broadcasts on MLB.TV in 2020 how happy they are with MLB.TV.
This is not the deal Yankees fans were expecting, and we’re guessing it’s not the deal we will see in a year or two. Amazon is already a player in sporting media rights, with streaming broadcasts of NFL Thursday Night Football and Premier League Soccer. Adding a full Yankees streaming offering to Prime members makes sense.
At least the Yankees and Amazon are seeking viewers beyond the traditional YES Network umbrella. The Chicago Cubs and Sinclair Broadcast Group have launched Marquee Sports Network for 2020, but instead of breaking new ground and building a service from the ground up for cord cutters, the pair decided to repeat the sins of the past and work with traditional cable networks for distribution. That decision got the Marquee Sports Network off to a rocky start, with agreements only with Mediacom and RSN so far (with Spectrum and the rapidly shrinking DirecTV on the way), and no agreement with the largest cable provider in Chicagoland: Comcast. Traditional cable is a dying breed—5.45 million cable subscribers cut the cord in 2019, and another 4.8 million are expected to do so in 2020, as video-on-demand vendors like Hulu and Disney experience rapid growth, with over 30 million new subscribers in the United States expected for these VOD services in 2020—but Sinclair is a player in that traditional cable world and the Cubs apparently did not see it fit to accommodate new cord cutters in Marquee Sports Network planning.
The Oakland A’s, however, did dive headfirst into the streaming world and moved game-day audio to A’s Cast, the Oakland A’s 24/7 audio streaming station on TuneIn, the live global streaming and on-demand audio service. The A’s already have a robust relationship with TuneIn with a popular podcast and have integrated it with the team’s customer relationship marketing, offering ticket discounts to podcast listeners. In the Bay Area, going the streaming route is a low-risk, high-reward strategy.
By contrast, the Minnesota Twins are embarking on a two-prong broadcasting strategy for 2020 and doubling down on the airwaves. In recent years the Twins have moved from in-house broadcasts on Pohlad-family owned FM radio stations to a return relationship with 830 WCCO, which served as home to Twins baseball for decades. There is a certain demographic of Twins fans who grew up listening to Herb Carneal on ‘CCO and bringing the team back to the AM airwaves made sense. This week the Twins and Entercom announced the addition of game broadcasts on 102.9 The Wolf, a Twin Cities country-music station that, interestingly, began life way back when as WCCO-FM. That makes the Twins the fourth MLB team to feature both AM and FM broadcasts in the same market. At a combined 150,000 watts, according to a team press release, the Twins will have the most expansive flagship radio coverage of any team in Major League Baseball.
“We are thrilled to further extend our successful broadcast partnership with Entercom, while also bringing Twins baseball to a FM audience as a supplement to our metro flagship home on 830 WCCO,” said Twins President & CEO Dave St. Peter in a press release. “While WCCO is synonymous with Twins baseball, we are excited to ensure even greater access through our simulcast on 102.9 The Wolf. We applaud and thank Entercom leadership for their shared vision in making Twins radio broadcasts an industry leader.”
How this all shakes down in coming years is still an open question: the traditional radio companies are upping their streaming games, and streaming giants like Spotify are investing in sports programming. The two worlds are on a collision course. The ultimate trophy in sports programming is the live gameday broadcast, and that will be the battlefield of the future.
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