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Major League Baseball Remains a Step Behind the Times

Professional Sports and Social Media

Written by Guest Writer: Evan Schwartz

The newest experiment in baseball and social media is broadcast live from Greenwich Village in the heart of lower Manhattan. Inside the former site of Tower Records is a clubhouse built for an overgrown 14-year-old baseball fan but inhabited by two adults, Mike O’Hara (l) and Ryan Wagner (r).

It is the MLB Fan Cave, part reality show, part Facebook and Twitter accounts and part vlog .  In an attempt to increase its online presence, Major League Baseball created the Fan Cave (in combination with a dizzying assortment of corporate sponsors) as a way to connect with fans online.  O’Hara and Wagner, two actors/comedians, live in the glass room and plan to watch all 2,430 baseball games this year while live chatting with fans, blogging, tweeting, taping video segments and skits, and interacting with current and former baseball players.

The Fan Cave is a monumental step forward for Major League Baseball which has lagged behind the NFL and NBA when it comes to professional sports and social media.  MLB is positively dinosauric in comparison to the two other leagues – they are quick to strip all game clips off YouTube and send cease-and-desist letters to any websites that host game footage.  MLB executive Matthew Gould told Deadspin.com that there is “a long-standing rights agreement that no video highlight clips from MLB game broadcasts are permitted online.”

MLB has about a million less Twitter followers than the NBA and NFL, and about 10 million combined less Facebook fans.  Baseball, with its rich history and billions of dollars in revenue, is almost a non-entity online. 

By comparison, the NBA is light years ahead.  Commissioner David Stern (pictured, below) has embraced social media and touts his league as possessing the largest online following of the three main leagues.  In February, Stern appeared on a podcast with ESPN writer Bill Simmons and gushed about the potential of social media and the fact that the NBA encourages their clips to stay online.

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“Early on, we decided it was going to be good for us and we went all in,” he said. “We made the judgment that we couldn’t wall off the world, and indeed we shouldn’t. Be our guest! If you’re a fan now, anyplace in the world, if you want you can get access to 1000 games a year online.  We get 30 million streams a week on NBA.com, and they’re on ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports.”

The NBA’s official YouTube page posts HD-quality game clips, compilation videos and commercials.  Watching a game and see LeBron James hit an acrobatic layup?  It will be on the NBA YouTube page within hours.  See Blake Griffin slam an emphatic dunk?  Fans will post it online within seconds – and the NBA doesn’t care.

“The digital water cooler drives viewership,” says Stern.  “You begin to see this wonderful conversation going on in more ways than anyone could have imagined when you talk about the potential of social media.”

The NBA has uploaded over 5,700 videos with more than 600,000,000 combined views.  In comparison, the NFL and MLB have no YouTube channels.  Want to see an Albert Pujols homer from last night?  Better log on to MLB.com, watch it on MLB.com’s proprietary video software – which does not allow the embedding of videos into blogs or websites –and hope they’ve decided to include it in their playlist.  Want to see an old clip of Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams or Reggie Jackson? You’re probably out of luck. 

The NFL toes the line between the free-for-all nature of the NBA and the draconian MLB.  Wracked with labor strife, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took to Facebook to send a message to NFL fans, a particularly savvy move during a difficult time for football.   While the NFL will sometimes pull clips offline, they are mostly widely available with thousands of fan-created clips but no official NFL YouTube account. There are more than 30,000 videos available on NFL.com with the ability to Tweet or Facebook ‘like’ any video from the website. 

What the NFL has done particularly well, and what MLB and NBA have begun to embrace, is the app.  The NFL Network has several apps for iPhones, iPads, Blackberries and other digital devices that allow fans to get live updates, watch games and stream video.  The NFL offers full games, old seasons and clips for purchase on iTunes, along with free apps for various devices that allows fans to engage with their favorite teams.  Now MLB and NBA offer live game companion apps, with live refreshing stats and scores from other games. 

Perhaps baseball and football will never move towards the more social media friendly policies of the NBA.  For one thing, MLB and NFL will always outdraw the NBA in attendance thanks to more games for baseball and bigger stadiums for football.  Baseball has always been slow to integrate change, whether it was playing games at night, allowing African-American players or adding instant replay for disputed calls. 

MLB Advanced Media, the MLB subsidiary in charge of all online media, is notoriously tightlipped about its online video policy, as is baseball commissioner Bud Selig. According to the New York Times, during an appearance at Marquette Law School Selig reiterated his opposition to free distribution of MLB videos online.

Of course, the MLB Fan Cave is a step in the right direction.  But baseball hoarding its video clips ensures that less fans will see their games.  There is a reason why the biggest stars in the NBA go viral every day, why LeBron and Dwayne Wade and Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard appear on national commercials, while baseball slogs through its season without a true transcendent star.  Maybe if fans from Texas could watch San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum mow down hitters, or fans from Seattle could see the Atlanta Braves’ Jason Heyward mash the ball, baseball would stop being so regional and so far behind the times. 

This first month of the 2011 baseball season saw several teams set record lows in attendance, including traditional draws like the Yankees and Braves.  Less attendance has led to more blackouts, both regionally and nationally, even for online subscribers to MLBtv.  It is a stretch to say the two issues are related but baseball had better embrace social media and especially online video soon otherwise no one may see their games. 

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evan schwartz feature writer sportstvjobs Evan Schwartz is a graduating senior at the George Washington University. He was born and raised in New York City and has worked for CBS News in NYC and DC, Comcast Sportsnet, CBS Sports and ESPN. Evan is also the Washington correspondent for Sirius/XM channel OutQ.

At GWU, Evan wrote an opinion column for The GW Hatchet, and acted and directed for student theatre. He is the recipient of the 2011 Roberts Prize, 2011 Essary Writing Prize, and 2010 Richard Eaton Scholarship.

Evan has been writing his entire life and hopes to become a feature writer. He is a Giants, Knicks and Mets fan, which leads to a lot of swearing at the TV.

Follow him on Twitter @Evan_S_S and check out his new blog

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