MLB.com emerges as Internet
by Alan Schwarz
August 16, 2005
In only a few years, mlb.com has gone from a somewhat haphazard league
portal to one of sports' most potent websites, leading baseball fans into the era
of streaming highlights, print-at-home ticketing and other 21st-century goodies.
And did we mention it'll bring in more than $200 million this year, giving hope
to the notion of revenue balance?
This leaves Bob Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, one of
the most influential behind-the-scenes executives in sports. Yet matters aren't
all rosy: MLBAM has butted heads with Fox executives, is suing a fantasy site
over rights to players' names and statistics, and more. I spoke with Bowman
recently about the ups and downs of an Internet powerhouse.
ALAN SCHWARZ: You've always had lots of ideas about how mlb.com can
bring baseball to fans in new ways. What should fans look forward to later this
year, maybe next year, that's different from the past?
BB: We're making the site a little bit more personalizable. When you go
to yankees.com you want to know what we think is important, but we'd like to add
what's important for you--which could be stocks, weather, news, fantasy team
stats, anything that's relevant. It's an entirely personalizable experience.
You'll see that come September.
The other thing more commerce-oriented is ticketing. One thing that we're
testing right now is sending someone in New York text a message on their cell
phone at 1 o'clock: "Four great seats in row 2 available for Yankees/Tampa Bay
tonight, hit 1 for yes, 2 for no." It may be a better way to sell tickets than
just by the site. You're going to see that in September as well.
AS: Will fans then get a barcode sent to their cell phone and scan it
at the turnstile, with no paper ticket at all?
BB: Some have scanners that won't work with the phone, so they'd have
to get it at will call. Some have scanners that can scan it right there.
AS: We're going to get to a point with streaming video where our PDA's
can become de facto televisions. How close are we to watching games on our
BB: There are really three issues that intersect there. The first is
just basically screen capability--resolution, depth, things like that. It's the
same with the barcode--you just need resolution to do that. The second thing is
that you need a wireless connection that lets you stream more than 10 frames a
second--10 frames a second is nothing more than a very tough slideshow. Sprint
has a service on their Samsung phone that can stream live events and it looks
The third issue is the rights issue. Online, we cannot stream games in the
local market--in New York, you can't watch the Mets or Yankees. The locating that
is done by cell phones is nothing like the broadband locating that we have in
place today, where we know pretty specifically where you are.
AS: Since 1999, I've always been fascinated by how revenue from
MLBAM--which is shared equally among all 30 clubs--can grow so large as to be a
method to significantly level the economic playing field. Your revenue was $135
million last year and is projected to be $235 million this year. That's not all
profit of course, but what kind of impact can this have on payroll disparity?
BB: So far, the (MLBAM) board chose not to make a distribution to the
clubs. But your thesis is right--we can level the playing field as best we can
and distribute it evenly, not unlike national TV deals. That was the goal, it
still is the goal. As to when the distribution is made, that's above my pay
AS: In that same vein, everyone likes to speculate that MLBAM will some
day go public and be a windfall for every club.
BB: We discussed this a year or so ago, and for a number of reasons it
was put on the shelf. But I'll tell you, one of the reasons that it has been put
on the shelf is that we need to be a good company, not a good stock. We still
need to be smarter and run better. A four-year-old company, even in its heyday?
That's early. Google was seven when they went public. I think there's something
to be learned from that. Seven years is pretty fast, but it's hard to argue with
anything that Google did.
AS: Your $650 million deal with XM has frustrated some local
rightsholders who once had more exclusivity in their markets. And recently a Fox
executive complained about your webcasting their feeds, saying, "We have a fight
every day about something" with MLBAM and "It is ugly." What's your approach to
navigating these competing worlds?
BB: Whether it's satellite radio, satellite TV, cable TV, streaming
games, whatever, the fan is going to tell us where and when he or she wants to
and can enjoy the game of baseball. You minimize impacts that you might have on a
rightsholder, like the local radio or the TV folks, and then eventually show that
it doesn't affect it. We have history to show that our streaming games (on the
Internet) did not adversely affect ratings. You've got to take it as a given that
if there is a device, cell phone, PDA, satellite radio, whatever it might be,
baseball has got to be on it.
AS: MLBAM is now in litigation with a fantasy league website, claiming
that the service needs a license to use players' names with their statistics. Why
are you pursuing this?
BB: I would argue that the statistics are in the public domain. On the
other hand, when you start using a player's likeness or name, attach it to
something that is a commercial endeavor, you have moved to a different plane. I
don't view that any differently than taking someone's likeness and putting it
next to a Coca-Cola can.
AS: But they're not using likenesses or logos. They're simply using
names and statistics, which are merely facts.
BB: I believe the name is a likeness. My view is that when you're using
a name for a commercial endeavor, that is a different effort. If all these
services were just saying, "Here are the stats," and they weren't selling a
service, that is fine. But when (customers) pay money for a game or (a company)
advertises for a game, you are now utilizing aspects of baseball in a commercial
endeavor in an unlicensed manner. That's what the lawsuit is about.
AS: What's interesting is that a few years ago, some retired baseball
players came together and sued MLB to say, "You can't use our names and stats in
your programs and marketing materials," and MLB argued against that and won!
BB: I think the republication of stats is a totally different activity
than running a game. Without box scores, USA Today still exists. Without the
players' names and stats linked together, there is no purpose in a commercial
AS: Several years ago, you and I discussed your grand plan to outfit
every stadium with a multicamera system that would capture pitch and hit speeds
and trajectories, allowing for all sorts of new data on which to rate players.
What is the status of that?
BB: We tested the program, it works great. I anticipate that we will
embark on starting to install devices in parks this year, even this baseball
season. Our only hope is that the cameras that we put in there will be able to
capture and distribute the data in real time. I would anticipate that we would
have an announcement on what we're going to do certainly by September. The
technology is there, it's just a question to make sure the clubs are on
AS: So is it possible that fans will be able to get this type of
information in this year's postseason?
BB: That is our goal. We have to make an educated guess as to who would
be in the playoffs, find a club that is a trendsetter. Wouldn't that be a nice
little coda to this story?
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.