Under The Radar: College Summer Leagues

While Major League Baseball has all of the corporate power to get major media packages like MLB.tv and MLB Radio off the ground, summer college leagues have worked to provide similar streaming capabilities on the strength of their own initiative.

Emerging technology is increasing access to emerging baseball stars and emerging leagues, as more summer leagues are utilizing Internet audio and video streaming to reach a wider audience and capitalize off the revenue it provides.

Companies like TRZ Communications Services, Cape.com, and Sports Juice and Future Media Inc. are just some of the distributors of live play-by-play for summer leagues that fans can access through the Web. TRZ and Cape.com also can broadcast the games through the phone as well.

Baseball Business

The first teams TRZ connected with were three Cape Cod League squads, and soon they began a relationship with the whole league. However, after a few years, the Cape League went with a new provider in Cape.com.

John Garner, the league’s director of public relations and broadcasting, said after four seasons of working with TRZ the league went with Cape.com, a local Internet service provider, because it was more cost-effective and easier for their local fans to use.

“We found in our research that our audience was mostly local, and the majority of people off the Cape listen on their computer,” he said. Since most of the phone listeners were local, it was more cost effective to use a local number rather than an 800 number, he said. So now, local fans can dial into a local number to hear games, while far-off fans can still follow the games via the Internet.

The Cape launched a broadcasting package in July called LeagueStream, which offers the play-by-play streaming product to other leagues around the nation. One of the specials of their package would be the game summary hotline service, which would give the listener a rundown of all the baseball action around the league.

The hotline was introduced this year in the Cape Cod League and has been very popular, according to Will Bussiere, the league’s liaison with Cape.com. “It’s something that’s never been offered by anyone before,” he said.

The New York Collegiate League has significantly less notoriety than the Cape but is using similar means to raise its profile. League president Brian Spagnola said two teams used Teamline last year, and because it worked so well, the entire league began to use the service.

“We’re very happy with their service,” he said, adding that parents have also been happy with the opportunity to hear the games.

Kevin MacIlvane, commissioner of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, said the league had worked with Sports Juice before switching to TRZ in 2004. MacIlvane was most proud that the relationship with TRZ allowed the NECBL to start streaming video for the first time this summer. “The prior two seasons the product and quality of service has been outstanding,” he said.

The NECBL, MacIlvane added, is investing in various forms of player information in order to help give more people access to seeing or hearing of these players’ performances. The audio and video streaming helps major league scouts get more access to the players active in the summer leagues, he said.

“I think it’s got huge potential,” he said. “If we could get the cost down, we could compete with the minor league system.”

But not every league uses a telecommunications company in order to provide audio or video streaming. The Coastal Plain League has created its own streaming system, WebPass. “We created the software and run our own servers,” league president Pete Bock said.

The CPL has offered play-by-play streaming for the past three years, although it took the league two years to get it off the ground–time mostly spent installing the necessary phone lines and equipment to support Internet connectivity at its ballparks.

Increasing the reach of a league via technology also can help smaller leagues, such as the Southern Collegiate, in their marketing efforts. SCBL president Jeff Carter said his league, in its second year of using Teamline to produce play-by-play Webcasts, has allowed the league to court sponsors and sell ads in the hometowns of its players.

“At least 70 percent of our players are from out of state, and we thought it would be a good benefit for the parents to be able to listen,” he said. “We’re pretty progressive for the most part. We’re trying to stay up as much as we can.”

MacIlvane said the NECBL can use the leaguewide streaming to increase its exposure regionally, especially important when sharing a region with the Cape, the preeminent summer league. “Right now, it’s a very good regional branding tool, since the league cuts across six states,” he said.

The Cape League’s backbone is corporate sponsorship, Bussiere said. He said sponsors have ads read by play-by-play broadcasters during games, and these clips are carried on Webcasts as well.

Mike Wilt, the director of marketing for TRZ, said teams can not only market their sponsors, but also themselves with these services. Because most colleges already stream audio and video of games, parents and players are beginning to expect these kinds of services.

The added exposure through Webcasting also helps teams entice more players to come to play in their leagues. These services show off the technical prowess of the team, and allow parents feel comfortable with the teams, knowing they will be able to follow their sons.

How The Magic Happens

The process for these services is simple. Before a game, the play-by-play broadcasters plug their headsets into a land-line phone or cell phone and call a specific access number for the team, and the Internet service provider begins the game transmission. As the play-by-play is called, the company can distribute the audio either through a telephone access code or online.

The streaming broadcasts allow the team to generate revenue by selling subscriptions to the game broadcasts as well as providing the opportunity to sell air time to sponsors.

The audience is typically composed of parents, local fans and some scouts, and most leagues and companies say the number of listeners is steadiliy growing.

Wilt said his company served about 55 summer teams this season with Teamline, nearly doubling the number the company worked with last year. The company has been working with summer collegiate teams and leagues around the nation for the past four or five years to offer services to the fans, he said.

“We mainly provide the distribution services,” he said, saying that as a communications company, they have a larger bandwidth that enables hundreds of people to follow a game through their Website. Individual team sites might not be able to accommodate as many fans.

The summer leagues have added business to a normally slow season for TRZ. The organization’s biggest demand comes between August and May, when college sports are in full gear. “It’s really been a boon for us,” Wilt said.

Wilt said most of the software needed to provide the audio and video streaming service is something teams can download for free, and the teams typically provide their own equipment for the play-by-play or the video. The only obstacle for streaming audio and video usually comes from having enough Internet bandwidth. Because many teams play on high school or recreational fields, the Internet connection isn’t always the best.

“That’s really the biggest hurdle,” Wilt said. “The New England League is the first summer league to offer video streaming on a leaguewide basis. They overcame that hurdle great. But video is still in its infancy.”

He said it took some time to get a connection at every field in the NECBL, but the league was ready to provide live video by the season opener this year.

The video streaming allows the NECBL to do things you wouldn’t expect from a college league to bring fans closer to the action. MacIlvane said the Torrington Twisters have a K-Zone camera positioned behind home plate that shows the audience the catcher’s view of the action. Having the streaming technology also allows each team to show instant replay if they choose, he said.

Wilt said the NECBL’s move from audio to video sets an example for others to follow. “We’re hoping that’s the natural progression,” he said. “It hasn’t quite gone like that yet, but it’s next on the table.”

It appears Wilt is right. Bussiere said streaming video of games is on the drawing board for the Cape League; another step would for creating game highlights for the Internet, similar to YouTube.com video clips. Spagnola and Bock also said their leagues are looking into video Webcasts for the future.

Video seems to be the end of new technologies that could shape the leagues, Wilt said.

“At least in media, we’re not seeing a new way to cover these kids,” he said.