- - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I don’t envy commissioner Rob Manfred and his fellow Major League Baseball decision-makers, trying to make baseball more appealing to younger fans while not alienating older fans.

The goals appear diametrically opposed at times.

Even developments like livestreaming — intended to make games more accessible — can move the needle in opposite directions for the demographic groups. For instance, take Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park, when the Mets and Nationals played the rubber match of a three-game series.

Washington was still abuzz over its seven-runs-in-the-ninth-inning comeback victory Tuesday night. But residents hungry for more were sorely disappointed when they tuned their TVs to Mid-Atlantic Sports Network Wednesday afternoon. They expected to find the usual fare when the Nationals play: Dan Kolko and Bo Porter on the pregame show, and Bob Carpenter, F.P. Santangelo and Alex Chappell on the broadcast.

Instead, the local baseball fans were treated to drag racing — the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.



Turns out the Nationals-Mets game was on YouTube, which earlier this year expanded its MLB partnership to include an exclusive 13-game streaming deal. The slate began July 18 with a Phillies-Dodgers contest and has included one game each week since.

“It’s incredible to team up with Major League Baseball for this first-of-its-kind deal together to provide both diehard baseball fans and our YouTube community with live games exclusively on YouTube and YouTube TV,” YouTube official Timothy Katz said in an April news release.

MLB executive VP of global media Chris Tully added that “with the media consumption habits of our fans continuing to evolve, MLB is committed both to expanding our roster of national broadcast platforms and to presenting live games in new ways to our fans.”

A new presentation doesn’t make for a new game. But you have to applaud baseball for trying.

Diehard fans eventually, you know, die. They won’t regenerate themselves without some assistance from headquarters. I’m not convinced that putting the same product in different packaging is the answer. However, it beats watching your fan base grow older and grayer while younger generations pay you no mind.

Baseball has its hands full with on-field matters like its pace of play, intermittent action and hitters’ all-or-nothing mentality. Players will have a large say in solving those problems. That’s not the case concerning broadcast partners and outlets, issues for Manfred and MLB leadership.

They’ve done good, for now, by putting a package on YouTube and abandoning the Facebook experiment.

MLB was hammered for allowing the social network to livestream 25 exclusive games last season. Not every fan with online access has or wants a Facebook account. But YouTube doesn’t require viewers to create a profile or log in, granting access without encroaching on privacy.

What’s more, the YouTube app is factory-installed on many smart TVs, gaming platforms and streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku and Google’s Chromecast. For a plethora of fans and would-be fans looking for Nationals-Mets Wednesday on MASN, it essentially was a matter of flipping to another channel.

The YouTube games are produced by MLB Network, and they’re as smooth and polished as any national or regional broadcast. Best of all, there are no commercials. Features and interviews fill the time between innings. Viewers on Wednesday got a glimpse of the Mets’ war room during the draft, and Carpenter recalling the oddity of Juan Soto homering last season in a game that, due to a weather postponement, technically occurred before the rookie debuted.

Putting a package of games on YouTube carries little risk for MLB. But it also carries little reward, especially compared to another move Manfred & Co. should make.

If they’re serious about increasing access and drawing more eyeballs, they should demolish baseball’s onerous blackout policy on livestreaming.

The archaic restrictions, designed to protect regional sports networks like MASN, create unnecessary barriers for too many would-be viewers. In some markets, livestreams for as many six teams are prohibited. NBC News reports that teams’ blackout regions cover three states at minimum and five on average, with the Seattle Mariners’ “market” consisting of enough land to fill South Africa — 560,000 square miles consuming parts or all of seven states, including North Dakota and Alaska.

Maybe it’s just me, but shunning online viewers in Fargo and Anchorage seems counterintuitive to growing the sport. MLB.tv charges subscribers $119 a year to watch games via livestream. It makes no sense that fans in Las Vegas and Iowa are prevented from watching six teams each, while fans in Hawaii can’t watch any of the five California teams.

YouTube’s 13-game package is good for baseball, no doubt. But it’s a small step in luring larger and younger audiences, which remains a significant challenge for MLB.

To that end, a more enlightened blackout policy would help.

• Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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