RealTime IT News

MLB.TV Puts Live Games Online

Looking to cash in on the popularity -- and exclusivity -- of online audio broadcasts of baseball games, Major League Baseball's Web portal on Tuesday launched a new MLB.TV service that offers on-demand and live access to pay-per-view video feeds.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the New York-based company that runs the pro baseball's Web operations, is hawking about 45 regular season out-of-market games a week for $14.95 per month. Another option is for fans to shell out $79.95 for the entire season.The MLB.TV service, an extension of a three-year exclusive deal with Seattle-based RealNetworks will employ IP tracking to protect network television rights of local games but, because the technology has been unreliable as a geo-location tool, it's likely to raise the ire of MLB's television partners that shell out billions of broadcast rights.

MLBAM spokesman Jim Gallagher told internetnews.com the MLB.TV initiative would be available only to fans with high-speed Internet access, will also sell the feed on a per-game basis but pricing for that option has not been fixed. That per-game option is expected to be in the range of $3 or $4 each.

MLBAM is projecting at least 25,000 subscribers for the MLB.TV service this season.

MLB.TV will use geo-location technology from Mountain View, Calif.-based Quova to black out access to local games. Quova's tools match Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to identify users within the local market but, because IPs can be easily masked via proxies and anonymizers, the technology has never been foolproof enough to ensure protection.

For instance, a New York Yankees fan in the Bronx can use a proxy to fool the technology into believing he/she is in North Carolina and get access to the video feeds. MLBAM plans to randomly verify the location of users by collecting telephone numbers but, that too, can easily be circumvented. It would take a monumental effort to adequately police IP spoofers but MLBAM does not believe that problem will be widespread.

To lure paying subscribers to MLB.TV, the league will offer a 'freeview' version for Spring Training games to go along with free audio-only feeds. Once the regular season kicks off, the feeds will all go behind the premium curtain. The company also announced a price hike for the play-by-play audio feeds and a single-team package that should find takers among baseball fans.

The Gameday Audio service, which is geared towards fans on the move, will now cost $19.95 for the season, up from $14.95 but MLBAM has tweaked the options to hawk an $11.95 service for access to single team feeds. Gallagher said the pricing was set by RealNetworks, which shelled out $20 million in March 2001 for exclusive online audio and video rights.

For RealNetworks, the launch of MLB.TV is a big boost to its efforts to hold up the RealOne SuperPass service as the number one fee-based video service online. With rival Yahoo on the verge of rolling out a competing service, the company is hoping its baseball exclusivity will give it an edge with a key demographic.

According to Arbitron's Webcast Audience Profiles, fans who tune in and pay for baseball Webcasts were a prized lot. An Arbitron survey found that 31 percent of the listeners to World Series games on MLB.com live in homes with annual incomes greater than $100,000, while only 16 percent of all American households are in that bracket. Listeners who tuned to the World Series online were also highly educated, with 82 percent having completed college and/or attained a post-graduate degree, compared to only 21 percent of the U.S. population who have obtained the same level of education.

It is not the first time MLBAM has dabbled with putting fee-based video online. Last April, the portal rolled out a pay-per-view condensed version of all games. Condensed Games sold a 20-minute on-demand highlight package of every game played in the 2001 baseball season and was priced at $4.95 per month.

MLBAM, which has a $120 million commitment over four years from the baseball league. Major League Baseball's 30 owners have agreed to inject $1 million annually into its Web operations money made from the subscription services are all split evenly by the franchises.

Separately, MLBAM announced that SportingNews.com would power its online fantasy games feature at MLB.com. In addition to providing the fantasy games, the Sporting News will be the official content provider for MLB.com's subscription-based fantasy games including stats, rankings, previews, daily player updates and injury reports to MLB.com fantasy players.