5 steps to fixing baseball on TV

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The week is off to a good start but you’re tired. You plop on the couch. What are you going to watch?

Your streaming subscriptions are out of control, so you have options. Try The Crown? It won Emmys. So did Ted Lasso. Is Apple TV still free? They say Handmade’s Tale recovered after season two. Wait, The Voice is on. You can stream that anytime on Peacock though. Speaking of Peacock, The Office would really hit the spot. The Office it is.

It’s 7:02 p.m. As you navigate to the Peacock app you remember the Padres are in town. Aren’t they good this year? You exit the AppleTV input and get to NBC Sports Bay Area as it cuts to commercial. Crap. You scroll TikTok until the game comes back and, wait, they’re still not playing yet. You check the time. 7:06 p.m. Another commercial? You just wanted to watch the ball game. This is a lot of work. Back to Apple TV>Peacock>The Office.

By 9:30 you finished five episodes. How’d that Giants game go? Back to the cable box. Giants lead 6-2 in the seventh inning. You decide to watch this for a bit. By 10 p.m. you’re asleep.

You might be wondering the point of this blog post. There’s a lot of discussion about the state of the game of baseball, and I want to wade into it with a perspective I haven’t heard anyone take. Which is this: 

Sports are no longer sports. They’re content. Baseball is content.

With that perspective, baseball’s biggest competitor is not the NFL. It’s Netflix. It’s Hulu. It’s all the other things you could watch on a Tuesday night. Or a Sunday afternoon. Or together with friends. The rise of on-demand streaming has thrown what used to be separate cohorts of viewers into an omnibus audience of content consumers. Not necessarily by producing better content, though peak TV certainly counts as better content, but simply by becoming options.

Sports leagues kept up by moving their content online, but I assert the net-new content is close to zero. Baseball and basketball still play 162 and 82 respectively. Only football really expanded as college created a short playoff and the NFL added one week to its regular season. You could conceviably calculate an increase in sports content by including all the ancillary programming surrounding it: Pre-game, post-game, debate, previews, reviews, etc. But even that can’t keep up with all the content flooding the market from streaming platforms. The end effect of this content inflation is sports loses ground while the volume of non-sports content skyrockets.

There are some ways sports will never be able to compete with streaming content. Games happen in real-time and are hard to avoid being spoiled; streaming content is on-demand and spoilers are more easily avoided. Sports are also longer than most content types. Even a swift NBA game is long enough to stream five or six 30-minute episodes. Baseball—as fans are painfully aware—is a three-hour commitment if you’re lucky. Most games with a 7:10 p.m. first pitch will end closer to 10:30 than 10:00. One night with your local ball club could be spent watching three episodes of Bridgerton. 

Thinking about baseball as content starts to crystalize how fixing the product—ie, the game—can’t be separated from fixing the way the content is delivered and consumed. Baseball could implement pitch clocks, ban shifts, insitute a universal DH and still not secure its future if it doesn’t address how and where it presents the game to fans. 

Here are five ideas for how to accomplish that.

Solve the blackout problem. Sports leagues are run by a commissioner selected by team owners, but in reality that commissioner is beholden to the league’s television partners. The broadcast and regional sports networks call the shots on commercial breaks and game times (see the next idea), but more critically on how and where users access MLB content. To the point: They simply won’t allow baseball to do anything that would potentially eat away at their subscription revenue. I live two blocks from Oracle Park and can’t watch Giants games. Not because they’d rather have me buy a ticket but because they’d rather have me subscribe to a cable platform that collects carriage fees. 

Totally understandable. And totally destroying access to the game. Modern content consumers expect all content to be available when and where they want it. In a marketplace where streaming subscriptions range from $5 to $20 per month they also don’t expect to be asked to fork over $55 or more for a cable subscription just to get a handful of sports channels. That’s a completely non-competitive position for the cable outlets. 

Even if you are a cable subscriber, you can’t validate your subscritpion with the MLB app and watch local teams in the same interface as out-of-market games. You have to switch from MLB to Bally Sports or NBCSN or whatever app carries the hometown nine. I can’t underemphasize how annoying that is. It means you basically can’t switch between two games. Again, baseball stands in the way the content we want when we want it. 

Move up first pitch. People are conditioned that new content starts at the top and bottom of the hour. It’s why the TBS superstation shifted its schedule back five minutes; it wanted you to watch more TBS by breaking that habit.

Why then does baseball delay first pitch until 7:10 p.m.? Every regional sports network airs at least 30 minutes of pregame content already. What’s the point of making viewers sit through another 10? Oh right: Broadcast partners want those two valuable commercial breaks before the real content starts. Great. Meanwhile the casual viewer is already second-screening by first pitch or has tuned out all together. 

Contrast that with NFL content. When you tune in at 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday you get kickoff at 1:02. No extra commercial breaks, no fluff content following the hour long pregame show. Sit down, tune in—BAM—football. Baseball should steal the NFL’s idea and move first pitch up eight minutes. It won’t shorten the length of the game or improve its pace, but it will create a sense of immediacy for viewers and give them the content they want when they want it. Why, that almost sounds like on-demand. Scary.

Shift shifts to a graphic. Infield shifts changed the game, and television broadcasts haven’t kept up. Fans have no idea where fielders are positioned unless TV cuts away to show the infielders or announcers verbally convey who is standing where. Each moment in a broadcast is valuable and something as common as shifts shouldn’t have to take up that much time. Luckily there’s an easy solution.

Every network displays a graphic showing the runners on base, looking something like this:

Screenshot of a baseball game with the score, count, outs and men on base in the upper left corner.

Why not use that same graphic to show where the fielders are positioned around the infield? Just like the score bug freed announcers from having to recite the count, outs and score this simple change would give fans the information they need while letting announcers provide more compelling commentary.

Highlight pitch sequencing. Pitch sequencing is one of the most important aspects of the game. Most broadcasts ignore it entirely in their commentary and graphics. Both need to change, I’ll focus on the graphic aspect here and address the broadcasters’ contribution in a later point. 

The adoption of widescreen HDTV did great for showing more of the football field and the hockey rink. But for baseball…we get a lot of infield grass. This is wasted screen real estate. There is plenty of room on either side of center screen for a concise graphic showing the type, speed and location of each pitch during an at-bat. Viewers would have an immediate visual to follow if they want to, or to ignore if they don’t. Credit to ESPN and MLB Network for tinkering with this idea by occasionally putting the type and speed under the score bug in the upper left of their screen. Every network should follow. 

Re-frame the meaning of action. It’s a common complaint when comparing baseball with football. “Football has a play every 40 seconds. Baseball might go five minutes without any action.” Oh really? 

There’s a hidden conversation between pitcher and catcher before every pitch, and pitches happen at least once every 20-30 seconds. To make the game broadcasts more compelling content, broadcasters need to do better at peeling back the curtain of what goes into every pitch. What’s the scouting report on this hitter? (A heat map could easily integrate into the pitch sequence graphic or the electronic strike zone—which, by the way, proves fans will adapt to graphics overlaying the game action.) How’d they pitch him last at bat? How did missing with two sliders affect what he can throw on 2-0?

“So you want commentators to yammer on like Chris Colinsworth after every pitch?” No. It has to be done in the course of a plate appearance. At-bats presented that way would turn a ho-hum game into almost non-stop action. Isn’t that what they say the game needs? You don’t have to create action by instituting a pitch clock or banning the shift (both of which I support and would definitely be wise moves). You can simply change the way the game is commentated to re-define what action means. 

I know what you’re thinking. “Come on, seamhead. The casual fan doesn’t want to be bombarded with stats and graphics and graphics about stats. You’ll turn more people away with your analytics and numbers.” Oh? More people than are turned away by the four-hour game I went to last week when one team changed pitchers three times in the first two innings? What do you think those Nielsen numbers looked like at 10:30 p.m.? 

Get over the famous former players. A personality already proven to be marketable is a rare thing in television so we all get why former players are a draw for the networks. But just because a player sold jerseys doesn’t mean he’ll be a compelling broadcaster. I’m willing to bet for every A-Rod and Justin Morneau on TV there’s a former player who didn’t get his own shirseys but could convey the game in a more compelling way than those two. Find them. Train them up. Put them on the air. 

There you have it. I’m certain baseball and its broadcast partners compile mountains of research on what viewers want to see, and therefore the television product we get is the sum total of that research. I’m a data-driven marketer who can hardly fault them for that. But as a baseball fan and avid consumer of television I’m convinced the league is out of step with every trend in television content.

Baseball already lost its place in our sports landscape to football and basketball. If it loses out in the competition among content providers it could be game over.

MLB At Bat Has A Season To Forget

Oh, the promises were there in spades. When Apple announced its revamped and much improved Apple TV on September 9, 2015, MLB Advanced Media was there to showcase a brand new MLB At Bat app for tvOS. 2-in-1 viewing. 60 fps video. Tech Times loved it, and who could blame them? We all salivated over how we’d watch baseball in 2016.

So how’d that work out for ya?

Almost from day one, the new MLB At Bat app on Apple TV was an utter disaster. To understand how, let’s look at some of the best features of the previous app:
Hide scores. Hide scores let you toggle the scores on or off so you’d never be spoiled if you joined a game late.
Inning select. A simple click on the old Apple TV remove brought up a marked line for jumping from inning to inning. Couldn’t have been easier.
Game events. Likewise, keep clicking and you’d get a menu that let you jump from one big play to the next. Awesome for reviewing games.
Runs scored. A third click brought up the runs scored menu. Another great way to zip thru a ball game.

It wasn’t perfect. The previous generation Apple TV had some limitations. But it worked, reliably, and provided cool features that made it easy to watch the games you want.

Spring training streams aren’t always the greatest, whether it’s due to the inferior ballparks or what I am not sure. So when the Dodgers broke camp for a freeway exhibition against Anaheim at Dodger Stadium I was blown away by the new 60fps stream.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://t.co/SFvNePHcXp”>https://t.co/SFvNePHcXp</a&gt; picture quality on the new AppleTV is as if I have a new TV. Motion is so smooth. Blown away.</p>&mdash; Kevin Watterson (@kwatt) <a href=”https://twitter.com/kwatt/status/715731575158259712″>April 1, 2016</a></blockquote> //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I am not a fan of the way modern TVs display artificially smooth motion, but this was different. It didn’t look artificial. My TV is a Sharp Aquos from 2006, and At Bat made it look like a top-of-the-line debut model.

That was late March. I’ve seen a stream at 60fps once or twice since. Where it went, I have no idea. I don’t know if they had to downgrade the app to handle poor performance issues or if they simply gave up on it. But it’s gone.

You might be thinking, “Okay, Watterson, maybe you’re just so used to it that now you don’t even notice the 60fps.” Nope. Whenever I pull up a stream on my iPhone 6 I’m mesmerized again, because that is consistently 60fps.

That wasn’t so bad. You can’t really miss a feature you never had.

What made the “new” At Bat app such a pathetic fail is that all those features I listed above disappeared. Flat went missing. POOF. Only the inning selection has come back – in June, three months into the season and 10 months after the app was displayed at the AppleTV announcement – and that in a way that spoils the outcome of a game even if you’ve hidden the scores. The rest are gone and MLB support has given no indication when, if ever, they will return.

Speaking of hide scores, that took months for MLB to iron out, too.

If you tried to get an answer from At Bat support you would get a copy-paste response that it would report your concerns to their development team. Then it would delete your question from their support forums. Over and over again fans would ask, and over and over again they would get deleted.

On top of the missing and slow-to-arrive features, the app’s new UI is somewhat poor. Customers with premium access to home and away broadcast streams lose the option to chose in split-screen view. I don’t know how an app gets released with a UI that takes away premium features, features that we paid to have. That seems to me to be the opposite of what should happen.

All of this sits beside the app’s incredibly inconsistent performance. For the first few months of the season it would freeze almost nightly between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. That eventually got resolved but I’m not sure if there have been any nights when it hasn’t crashed at least once. It crashed once while I was writing this column.

How did this happen? There’s a concept in development called MVP (minimum viable product). I won’t go into it but it basically says release your product at its earliest viable state and iterate, iterate, iterate. MLBAM clearly had access to the new tVOS long before anyone else, yet their flagship app seemed to be released to paying customers as an MVP. At best it was an MVP. I’d actually say from my experience it felt more like a beta.

If I were cynical I’d point out that MLB was forced to offer MLB.tv subscriptions at a lower price this year and say maybe this is why the app was so bad. Why bother refining a product you’re not able to charge full price for? But I’m not that cynical.

Missing features that customers paid for. Miserable performance. MLB Advanced Media owes its paying customers an apology for the product it gave them on Apple TV in 2016.