Chicago Sun-Times on Aug. 27, 2002, after the birth of MLB.TV
First there was print, telegraph and word of mouth. It was how a fan on a Kansas wheat farm or in a Northeast industrial town followed the soaring pastime of baseball in the 1800s and well into the next century. It was how an American immigrant learned about Cap Anson, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb and Cy Young.
Then there was radio. The first Major League game to be broadcast over that device was on Aug. 5, 1921, when Pittsburgh station KDKA offered play-by-play of the Pirates' 8-5 victory over the Phillies. The radio booth gave us legends like Red Barber, Mel Allen, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck and Vin Scully.
Then there was television. In 1939, W2XBS -- an experimental station in New York that would become NBC -- delivered the first baseball broadcast on May 17 between Princeton and Columbia. On Aug. 26 of that year, the same station, with Barber in the catbird seat, broadcast the Reds' 5-2 victory over the Dodgers. Thus began a tradition that would magnify the baseball experience and make sports a happening.
Then there was MLB.TV.
It was five years ago today that the Next Big Thing in baseball consumption was introduced, and once again it was the national pastime that paved the way for the technology and reshaped the average fan's life. On Aug. 26, 2002, exactly 63 years after that first televised Major League game, the Yankees withstood an Alex Rodriguez homer and beat Kenny Rogers and the Rangers, 10-3, at Yankee Stadium. The YES Network's full broadcast was streamed as a live Webcast for free exclusively at MLB.com, meeting immediate excitement, probably slowing worker productivity a bit and most definitely leading to the ultimate curtain call.
To commemorate that historic first and the five years of technology excitement that followed, MLB.com will provide a free live Webcast of today's series finale between the Yankees and Tigers from Comerica Park in Detroit.
"We are excited to celebrate this historic occasion for baseball fans by providing this broadcast featuring two storied franchises," said Dinn Mann, Executive Vice President, Content and Editor-in-Chief of MLB.com. "The first live broadcast five years ago was the foundation to offering fans the opportunity to watch games anywhere, anytime and on any device. We remain committed to our charter goal of expanding that reach to as many fans as possible and will build from that foundation by leveraging innovative and interactive multimedia platforms and continuing to foster meaningful partnerships."
The rematch of last year's American League Division Series will be available to fans residing outside of each team's local television market exclusively on MLB.com at 1:05 p.m. ET today, exactly five years to the date when MLB.com presented that initial historic broadcast. There was an audience of more than 30,000 viewers for that Rangers-Yankees game, and its initial success was followed with a nine-game package of games featuring playoff contenders in September, and a playoffs and World Series package that was only available to users outside the U.S. and Japan.
The technology was formally dubbed as MLB.TV for the start of the 2003 season, as MLB became the first sports league to stream live games online for a full schedule. It started with about 1,000 games that year, and now, millions of viewers later, every out-of-market Spring Training and regular season game is included and a subscription to MLB.TV or MLB.TV Premium is simply part of the game's culture for people everywhere.
And we mean everywhere.
"We had a bad storm here last Thursday night that knocked out our power until Saturday," Dreama Webb said from Ashland, Ky., where she and husband Philip raised a future Diamondbacks ace and the reigning National League Cy Young winner. "Well, we had to see the game, so we drove over to Brandon's house here and we watched it on his computer on MLB.TV. Otherwise, we would have missed it."
Yes, the Webb family subscribes to MLB.TV. Brandon was pitching for the El Paso Diablos of the Double-A Texas League at the time of that 2002 Rangers-Yankees milestone. And while he was fashioning a scoreless-innings streak that finally ended Wednesday night after 42 amazing frames, his parents were tracking him on MLB.TV.
It is a story that more and more fans can relate to, and something you have to be part of if you want to feel the total effect of baseball in this high-speed decade. Many Major Leaguers are subscribers, and so are their families and friends who watch them from all over. Some people within the game use MLB.TV for scouting purposes. There are countless reasons to get MLB.TV, from scoreboard-watching to business travel to fantasy player tracking to having on-demand access, but the No. 1 reason that this service exists is still helping fans who live far from their favorite teams.
That constitutes more than half of the baseball crowd. It's a mobile society, filled with Yankees fans who relocated to Los Angeles, Cubs fans who moved to Dallas, Red Sox fans who expatriated to England, Ichiro Suzuki fans who live in Japan and Vlad Guerrero fans who live in the Dominican Republic. It's for some of the world's most popular recording artists, whose band members stay connected while on tour. It's for the Giants fan who was transferred to New York when Google opened its big presence there. Go to any Major League ballpark, and in addition to that day's crowd, there is a strong presence of displaced fans who would be there if they could but who rely on MLB.TV to take them there. Every day there seems to be a new reason for MLB.TV, which is why it has grown into a necessary broadcast vehicle alongside radio and TV.
'Expanding' the game
The fifth anniversary of MLB.TV is a good opportunity to reflect on just how much has changed since Orlando Hernandez threw that now-historic first pitch to Todd Hollandsworth of the Rangers on that August afternoon. Most notably, that game was streamed in a "postage stamp" window of 300K and 56K speeds. It was a time when a major Internet outlet such as MLB.com still had to cater heavily to users with dialup connections, notably America Online members. It would cause pandemonium today, but there was an unquestioned coolness factor at the time.
|"The first live broadcast five years ago was the foundation to offering fans the opportunity to watch games anywhere, anytime and on any device. We remain committed to our charter goal of expanding that reach to as many fans as possible and will build from that foundation by leveraging innovative and interactive multimedia platforms and continuing to foster meaningful partnerships."|
|-- MLB.com Editor in Chief Dinn Mann|
"It's expanding, which is a good step," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said after playing in that first game. "We may get into a situation where you don't have to have a specific channel to see a game. It will reach more people, because fans that follow teams but can't see them because they live on the other coast will now have a way to see their team play."
Today's advanced compression technologies make more and more people want to do that, as 2007 has marked the first time that the broadcasts have neared television-quality for users who demand that. MLB.TV games are now streamed in speeds of 400KB, 700KB, 1.3MB and 1.8MB. Those who subscribe to MLB.TV's regular service get the 400KB delivery. Those who subscribe to MLB.TV Premium have the benefit of the MLB.TV Mosaic product, which was introduced in beta late last season and which lets you watch as many as six live games at once on the same screen. It packs many other features such as those higher speeds and player tracking, and MLB.TV Mosaic figures to be a fan's best friend, judging by the likelihood of widespread division and Wild Card races to come.
After all, let's face it: The game is what does it. It's still all about the players, a bat, a ball and bases 90 feet apart. It was the same way with the advent of radio and television broadcasts. They just made baseball bigger and more of a lifestyle. The new technologies merely brought advanced methods of wider distribution of the action for those not lucky enough to have a seat in the ballpark, and MLB.TV became the latest such vehicle to do that. It has made the game more global, able to extend its reach into any corner of the globe where there is an Internet connection; and yet it's still the same game.
Since that inaugural Webcast, baseball fans have accessed more than 1.2 billion streams of live and on-demand multimedia offerings on MLB.com, representing more than 50 million hours of viewing time for baseball games on the Internet. In 2007, MLB.com will stream more than 12,000 live events, including every game on the Major League Baseball schedule as well as thousands of events for its various partners.
MLB.TV keeps you coming back, and the reason it happened at all over these past five years is that technology allowed for a very important breakthrough: Geolocation. Major League Baseball is replete with many broadcast rightsholders, such as the Yankees' YES contract, the Braves' TBS contract and the Cubs' WGN contract. They are fundamental sources of revenue for each of the 30 clubs, who have to pay exorbitant salaries to be competitive. The challenge was to capitalize on the increasing broadband penetration -- roughly nine out of 10 MLB.com users today has high-speed access -- while preserving the interest of those MLB broadcast rightsholders who catered to each individual market.
Knowing your audience
Again, at least half of users were "displaced fans," and the primary target audience for MLB.TV broadcasts. If you were a Rangers fan living in Dallas, for example, then you already could watch the team on your cable TV. There still is a big reason for that particular fan to subscribe to MLB.TV, because shortly after every game, the subscriber can access that full broadcast or any other game from that season on-demand. But there was a need to "black out" that Rangers game if you were on a computer in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, or within a defined radius in that region. The same was true with every other market. To do that, Major League Baseball Advanced Media has utilized its patent-pending geolocation technology, which seamlessly detects a user's vicinity by determining discreet data points per each user request.
Another challenge that was overcome in this revolutionary medium was scalability. There has been an annual doubling effect in the volume of concurrent streams of MLB.TV games, and the technology is equipped to handle the same future growth as more and more fans make this part of their lives.
Among the many milestones within these five years of MLB.TV broadcasting has been the creation of a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network. MLBAM wired all 30 MLB parks to its multimedia data center, bringing back increasingly higher-quality video. Presently, MLBAM receives one feed from each park, either home or away. With MLB.com Gameday Audio, you can choose whether you want the home or the away crew; that same capability might exist with MLB.TV in the future.
MLB.TV's success also spawned MiLB.TV, its equivalent within Minor League Baseball. MLBAM began operating the Minors' website at the start of the 2005 season, and the first live stream of a Minor League game was on that very first Opening Day. It was Curt Schilling's rehab start for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket affiliate in the International League. MiLB.TV streamed more than 150 games in 2005, more than 600 in 2006, and is looking at more than 800 in 2007. In addition, the technology has been used for the World Baseball Classic, and for other platforms operated by MLBAM.
"The biggest thing about it is it's great for people who travel like us and don't have access to TV," Rangers reliever C.J. Wilson said. "If I want to watch Johan Santana pitch, that's the best way. I know that's how my family watches me play because they live out in California."
Everywhere you look, there are people who talk like that today. It's time to celebrate five years of MLB.TV and raise our computers to the latest in a very select series of truly revolutionary advancements in the game's mass-consumption delivery. And just remember that a happy worker is a productive worker. We think.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.