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MLB’s streaming deals are a nightmare for fans

Please, we are begging you. Just let us watch games easily!

Watching baseball on TV used to be this easy. Not anymore!
Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

I haven’t been around Bleed Cubbie Blue nearly as much as I’d like for the first week of MLB because it happened to coincide with the busiest week of the year at my day job. I was watching the Cubs home opener against the Brewers while I was working and audibly groaned when I looked up and realized I’d missed Seiya Suzuki’s first hit, but I’ve got to pay the bills. That said, baseball was back, so when I got home in time for some baseball last Friday night I settled in to watch MLB.TV.

My smart TV is a little too old to stream MLB directly, but no worries. I had bought a Roku for precisely this purpose. I set it up, settled into my couch and decided I’d love to see Juan Soto play only to get a pop-up warning that the Nationals v. Mets game was exclusively on Apple TV, a streaming service that I don’t have. I grumbled a bit, but definitely wasn’t up for adding Apple TV after a long day. So I tried to shrug it off and decided watching Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout play would be just as good — only to find that the Angels v. Astros game was also exclusively on Apple TV.

I let loose a few game thread words in the privacy of my apartment and then decided to write this article as soon as my work event ended. Honestly, I was more annoyed by this situation than I’ve been by the asinine blackout restrictions MLB cannot bring themselves to fix. At least the MLB blackouts are predictably awful — devastatingly so if you have the misfortune of being a baseball fan in Iowa — but predictable.

The streaming deals are a whole new level of ridiculous for a league that claims to want new fans to embrace its product. They also have the unfortunate side effect of demonstrating a tremendous lack of care and respect for the fans they already have.

I learned to love baseball from my dad, who is a die hard Yankees fan. As I was swearing at the TV and rolling my eyes at the reality of MLB’s streaming deals I remembered how hard it was to get my parents to agree to setup a Roku for them. Seriously, it took two different evenings. At one point my mother demanded I return it. They love it now, but it was quite the fight.

There is no way my dad is adding anything to the Roku that isn’t already there, and that is going to be a problem, because this is the reality for Yankees fans:

I could have sworn the point of having your own network was making it a one-stop shop for fans who wanted to live and die by every pitch during the season. Apparently, the Yankees are only interested in their fans tuning into YES sometimes and they are perfectly okay with those fans wondering where the game is and the likelihood that they will just not add one more streaming service to watch that particular game.

But it isn’t just a problem for Yankees fans. Are you interested in watching the hottest young prospects the Cubs acquired at the trade deadline for your favorite players? Well, that could be a problem. The Futures Game is moving to Peacock Premium. As a fan of Notre Dame football, which moved some of its early season games to Peacock last season, I can tell you it’s not exactly the most intuitive app to add on the fly. Baseball America notes, if you’re interested in watching the Futures Game, and a smattering of random new Sunday morning games that includes the Cubs July 24 match-up at the Phillies, you will have to pay for that streaming service too:

According to a release sent out by MLB, the Futures Game, which is played every year during the all-star weekend, will be airing exclusively on Peacock Premium. Recently the Futures Game was on MLB Network. It has also aired on ESPN in the past. It’s one of the highlights of the season for fans of prospects, as it gathers many of the best prospects in baseball to play an all-star game.

Peacock Premium is the pay portion of the Peacock streaming service. There is a $4.99 monthly plan and a $9.99 monthly plan.

Mets fans who wanted to tune into Max Scherzer’s debut were similarly out of luck. This piece from the Wall Street Journal makes it clear that soon all of us will either have to pay up or just randomly miss whichever games MLB chooses to sell to Apple (or Amazon, or Peacock, or, well, you get the idea, emphasis mine):

Fans of the New York Mets excited to watch the much-anticipated debut of ace pitcher Max Scherzer on Friday will have to look in an unfamiliar place.

The game won’t be on SportsNet New York, the regional sports network that broadcasts the vast majority of the Mets’ schedule. It won’t be on ESPN, TBS or any of Major League Baseball’s established media partners. It won’t be anywhere on traditional television at all.

Instead, the Mets’ contest against the Washington Nationals will be shown exclusively on Apple TV+, marking the fledgling streaming service’s entrance into live sports. The company reached a deal with MLB last month to air a weekly Friday night double-header, a move with potentially significant implications for baseball’s future. The games will be free to anyone with internet access for at least the first 12 weeks, but they are expected to be available only to subscribers at some point.

Yes, I understand this post has a very “old man yells at cloud” feel to it, but the thing is, MLB has an older demographic, so they should probably care about making their game accessible to older fans.

There is a massive disconnect between the demographics of who watches baseball games and who subscribes to streaming services as these handy graphs from Statista combined with data from the Sports Business Journal show. According to the Sports Business Journal in 2020 the average age of an MLB fan was 57, up from 52 in in 2006, let’s compare that to Apple TV Plus subscriptions by age:

Apple TV Plus subscriptions by age March 2020
Statista

During the lockout The Sporting News reported on a Seton Hall poll which showed that 44 percent of “avid” MLB fans would lose interest if the lockout canceled parts of the regular season. Their not-so-optimistic takeaway was that while diehard fans would continue to tune in regardless, getting younger viewership needed to be a priority:

Though it’s probably true that most die-hard baseball fans will lose little if any interest in the sport they love no matter what, keeping those people engaged shouldn’t be the goal, especially when they tend to skew much older than the average sports fan. Getting younger butts into seats, and younger eyes to watch, and younger brains to care is the challenge for the foreseeable future.

From where I sit, streaming manages to threaten to decrease the number of diehard fans watching the game (there are a lot of guys like my dad who definitely aren’t adding another tile to the Roku, he’ll just miss more Yankees games) while failing to market anything to new fans. The theory seems to be: “Younger people are streaming, so if we stream baseball they will watch it.” However, just putting your product that already didn’t appeal to the next generation on their platform doesn’t mean they are going to watch.

The whole point of streaming is picking what you want to watch, there’s not a big chance that someone is going to start watching a baseball game because they happen to be on Peacock or Apple TV. There are any number of terrible dating reality shows on Netflix that I scroll past every time I log on. I didn’t watch them on MTV or Bravo with traditional cable and they still don’t appeal to me on a streaming platform.

These deals don’t get new eyes on the league. They are an attempt to get the same old eyes to shell out more money for streaming services to catch all 162 games. That’s a hard sell to me these days because MLB owners have demonstrated they aren’t going to use that money to extend Javier Báez or Anthony Rizzo. Pirates fans aren’t fired up to watch Oneil Cruz make his MLB debut, he’s working on whatever down in Triple-A so the Nutting family can pocket nine figures before the first ticket is sold while they run a team with one of the five lowest payrolls in the league (about $48 million for the 26-man and $66 million total, according to Spotrac).

Bill Shaikin at the LA Times shared a lot of my concerns, so he interviewed Noah Garden, the Chief Revenue Officer at MLB to ask why the league has decided to make it more difficult for fans to watch their favorite teams play. You should read the whole interview, but spoiler alert, these aren’t answers. Garden’s comments are consultantese masquerading as a plan as you can see below (bold is Shakin):

Is this the wave of the future, the beginning of the end of the bundle? If I want to see my team play all its games, am I eventually going to need five or six or seven separate streaming subscriptions?

Everything is important. Linear is still the most important for us.

I think what you’re seeing on the streaming side is just a recognition that there are a lot of people that fall outside the bundle. Take L.A., for example. That RSN isn’t even distributed to everybody in L.A. [Cox Cable does not carry SportsNet LA.]

When you talk about a local audience that you’re trying to reach, if you take some of these national games, the idea is to reach a much broader audience. That’s the goal. If we didn’t think that was going to be the effect, we certainly wouldn’t do it. We don’t want less people viewing our content.

Garden continues with some comment about how he’s optimistic fans will watch all of the games because his mom started watching Ozark on Netflix.

There’s a lot of “people are streaming, so if we stream baseball, they’ll stream that” in Garden’s comments. I have to tell you, I think MLB has whiffed here. They’ve taken the same package, with the same gatekeepers, and made it more difficult and expensive for even the most avid fans to watch. The more I think about this, the more I understand my dad’s perspective of just throwing in the towel on the dream of watching all 162 games of my favorite team. When the Cubs are on [insert random streaming service here] I think I’ll just tune into Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer on the radio.