Thirteen years ago Major League Baseball’s thirty teams collectively fronted a $75 million investment and launched a vehicle incorporating all individual team’s web sites and other Internet activities under the league’s umbrella. All content delivery, including developing live steaming capabilities, became part of Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) assets, and their format has been essentially copied by all the rest. At the turn of the millennium the Internet could be described as roughly at the same early stage of development as television technology when the Colts-Giants 1958 NFL championship game triggered the transformation of football into America’s TV game. Since, and primarily simply due to the nature of the game, baseball has been regarded by many as a dinosaur because of its (relative to football) lack of adaptability to television broadcasts. Yet now the Internet, and the associated technology and devices, is rapidly changing viewing options, as did television offer an alternative to live event attendance. Perhaps, in much the same way that the NFL thrived because of its adaptability to television broadcasts, a baseball renaissance is mounting because of the sport’s suitability to the Internet.
The Internet through its access flexibility, available through an increasing array of mobile devices, provides an environment that allows consumers to partake in other activities, sport related and otherwise, while at once viewing/consuming a game. In this case, the nature of baseball may make it the sport most apt for multi-dimensional consumption. Besides standard broadcast delivery for viewing and listening though live streaming—available to all but local market subscribers (more on this to come) on MLB.com since 2003—customers can access news, schedules, standings, and statistics from around the league and detailed information on each of MLB’s teams. Additionally, comes the opportunity to create and play in fantasy leagues. As consumption options have expanded beyond the simple and passive viewing of a game, baseball's deliberate pace, a liability for old fashioned broadcast TV, seems tailor-made for complimentary consumption options, and particularly for baseball because it is arguably the team sport whose fans are most consumed by supplemental statistics and information.
MLBAM’s impact on MLB’s revenues was quick and clear. In 1999 MLB revenue totaled a little more than $3.6 billion, similar though about one-half billion more than the NBA at the time. By 2006 MLB revenues had nearly doubled to more than $6 billion, nearly keeping pace with the TV-rich NFL who returned $6.5 billion that year; meanwhile NBA revenues had grown only a bit, to just exceed $3.5 billion. Baseball business analyst Maury Brown wrote in late 2005 that MBLAM had become a money machine, and profitable in less than three years. USA Today reported revenues reached $380 million annually by 2006. Pete Toms revealed that by 2010 MBLAM annual revenues were excess of $500 million and the estimated value of the subsidiary enterprise was $2 - $3 billion. The MBLAM subscription price in 2013 topped out at $130 for all-year, full service access. The NBA and NHL followed MLB’s lead and each offer similar full service websites that include live broadcasts to subscribers for out–of –market games. These products are likewise popular and similar to MBLAM, and are able to charge annual subscription prices of $150 per year, though both attract fewer subscribers than MLBAM.
The dinosaur this time around may be the NFL, ever cautious and always effective at limiting consumer viewing access for profit. Like its peers, the league maintains control over team websites and content. However they've left live steaming options to their contracted broadcast networks. For example ESPN is able to live steam Monday Night Football, but will do so only for its cable subscribers. Because of the volume of cash turned over by the networks for rights, there is for the NFL a more delicate relationship than the other league’s have with their TV partners; the networks collectively pay the NFL substantive rights fees—over $20 billion in 2011—12, and that amount will nearly double to $40 billion per year beginning in 2014—far and away the highest in sports. At present, the surge in traditional broadcast revenue has kept the NFL on at the top of the heap in terms of revenue generation- as they are now nearing $10 billion in annual revenues as number two MLB approaches $8 billion. But the NFL trails the pack in internet delivery. NBC offered the first ever live steaming of the Super Bowl in 2012, but the decision on steaming in the future will be determined by the network holding the broadcast rights. General access to live steaming is controlled by the NFL’s satellite television partner DIRECTV, and before 2011 access had been limited to those only homes where that service was not available and then only to those with specific mobile devices. Live streaming of NFL games became available universally to all devices for the first time in 2012, and at a hefty subscription price of $300 for the full service package.
Traditional broadcast markets are still thriving and keep the NFL at the top in terms of revenue and value. However assuming that Internet technology develops in the next twenty years at least as dramatically as did television technology from the 1960s onward, MLB is the league best prepared to capitalize.