Baseball season is in full swing and look who we have on deck – Bob Bowman, president and CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the Internet arm of America’s national pastime. He operates www.MLB.com as well as each of the 30 team sites. His online initiatives have scored big. More than 400,000 subscribers signed up for MLB.com’s premier live game products as of May, up more than 45 percent from the same time last year. MLB.com page views totaled 2.2 billion (!) in the first three weeks of the season, a 73 percent jump from the same period a year ago. Damn. The man’s doing something right.
ID: MLB.TV Premium, your high-end online streaming video subscription service, is $109.95 this year, $10 cheaper than last year. Why’s that?
BB: I don’t think being 10 bucks cheaper is going to change someone’s mind to sign up or not. But when times get tough, we’re on the side of the fans. We’re trying to… build a long-term business. Have I received any e-mails because we dropped the price by 10 bucks? I think I received one. But price drops are not what motivate fans to write me.
ID: Clearly your online operation is making bank. Why does baseball lend itself to an online business model?
BB: Let me make two comments. It’s the nature of baseball that allows us to be successful. We have roughly 15 games a day. People don’t and can’t watch all of those baseball games a day. But they can stop in for 10 or 15 minutes and get updates. An interactive, short-term visit is ideally suited for the world in which we live. Baseball is ideally suited for that.
Second, valuable content shouldn’t be given away. We thought back then and even more so today, that in the end two trillion Web sites can’t get the same advertising that three TV networks could 20 years ago. That business model is so fundamentally flawed as to not be even worthy of a Harvard business case study. We’re grateful for baseball because it offers such compelling content. And you have to charge for valuable content and be subscription-based.
ID: What’s the deal with blackout rules on MBL.TV. I mean, why?
BB: Why is simple. We have rights holders throughout the country who paid significant money and are incredibly important to our infrastructure. They believe simultaneous streaming might infringe their rights. I don’t share that view. But until we sway them, they’re right. We can beg and borrow, but we can’t steal. They control that decision. There has been a review of (blackout rules) and it’s being discussed.
It’s clear there should be a blackout for, say, Nationals fans in the Washington, D.C., area. But it’s less obvious for fans in Vegas or Charlotte (where there are no Major League teams). I would pleasantly but firmly reject the notion that all blackouts are fan unfriendly, though.
ID: Hmm. Yet MLB.com At Bat 2009, an application built exclusively for the iPhone and iPod touch, allows fans to listen to every regular season and postseason game with no blackout restrictions. Why no blackout restrictions here?
BB: It’s not video. It’s just audio.
ID: What have you got in the works – in the bullpen, so to speak?
BB: Our high-definition (video) product is getting rave reviews. We’re hoping to stream live games in high definition on the iPhone this summer. People are going to be very pleasantly surprised. Again, subject to blackouts