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OC Register: Hoornstra: MLB reaches significant inflection point with streaming broadcasts


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The Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds will play before an international audience Friday night. The game falls on Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, and every player will wear Robinson’s number 42 on the back of his jersey. It’s a historically significant day on the baseball calendar, and this game features the most significant team for the occasion. Apple TV+ has the exclusive broadcast.

For anyone who missed it, Apple’s streaming platform made its debut last Friday with two broadcasts: Mets-Nationals and Angels-Astros. Major League Baseball has experimented with streaming platforms several times in recent years, from Facebook to YouTube to ESPN+. This year, the streaming experiment has expanded in size and scope. The New York Yankees, for example, will broadcast games exclusively on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and Peacock, in addition to the YES Network, ESPN, Fox and FS1.

At some point, the word “experiment” is no longer appropriate. I think we’ve reached that point.

For consumers, the Golden Age of Streaming is over. Gone are the days when cord-cutting allowed viewers to watch most of what they wanted on a television at a fraction of the price of most cable packages. MLB’s move beyond the experimental phase acknowledges this. It’s a bet that fans are willing and able to make the financial and logistical leaps into the Next Age of Streaming, and embrace its many arms.

“Television is a business,” said Jon Chelesnik, the owner of the Sportscasters Talent Agency of America. “Like with any business, you want to eliminate friction as much as possible – friction being the ease with which your consumer can use the product. If they can’t even find it, that’s not doing baseball any favors.

“If you’re trying to find Peacock or Apple TV – Where is my team tonight? Where do I find them tonight? – that’s a friction point. It makes it more difficult for the audience to consume.”

Baseball’s audience skews older than most major North American sports, making this more of a technological gamble than a regular-season NBA or NFL broadcast. The biggest gamble might have been in the booth.

Apple’s Mets-Nationals stream featured a team of Melanie Newman (play-by-play), Chris Young (analyst), Hannah Keyser (analyst) and Brooke Fletcher (reporter). For Angels-Astros, Apple selected Stephen Nelson (play-by-play), Hunter Pence (analyst), Katie Nolan (analyst) and Heidi Watney (reporter). Before any of them arrived at the field, there was a potential friction point for viewers accustomed to broadcasters who looked and talked like them: Male. Gen X or older. Often white.

By choosing a younger, more female presentation for its broadcasts, MLB (through Apple) took one of its largest steps yet toward appealing to a broader demographic.

Yet by giving the broadcast teams virtually no runway to develop their on-air chemistry, the principals had little chance of success. Most of the broadcasters had previous ties to MLB Network, but few had ever called a live baseball game before. Neither crew had worked a game together. That was painfully obvious at times.

Take this exchange from the fifth inning of Angels-Astros:

Pence: “Sho-hei Sho-took with two strikes.”

Nelson: “Workshop that.”

Pence: “I’m owning that.”

Nolan: “No one said you couldn’t. I would just advise against it.”

Nelson: “Weirdo factory up here. Not going to apologize for it.”

This kind of playful, self-aware banter is a matter of taste. It’s not for everyone. In an experienced booth, it usually passes quickly before the focus shifts back to the game. Friday, the “Sho-takes” banter continued into the next at-bat, by Mike Trout. Once it ended, arguably the two most talented baseball players on the planet had batted for the Angels, and the focus of the broadcast booth remained on … the broadcast booth.

This is not an indictment on the broadcasters. Nelson and Nolan have impressive resumes. Pence’s work with NBC Sports Bay Area has drawn positive reviews. Given enough repetitions, they can find their chemistry and call a baseball game at the same time. MLB has said it will announce the game assignments for “Friday Night Baseball” on a weekly basis, and a league rep confirmed Wednesday that Nelson, Pence, Nolan and Watney will call Dodgers-Reds on Friday. The more consistency in the booth, the better the chance of success.

Peacock (NBC’s streaming platform) and Amazon Prime have yet to announce their broadcast teams for their telecasts. It’s a delicate moment of uncertainty for how some very prominent baseball games will look and sound, and whether its older fans will make the streaming leap – a significant inflection point for baseball-as-showbiz.

In a recent interview with the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, veteran broadcaster Greg Gumbel said, “I’ve never felt in my entire life there is an announcer who can bring someone to the TV set to watch a game that that viewer wasn’t already going to watch. And I believe the only thing a broadcaster can do is chase people away.”

MLB’s commitment to streaming broadcasts is indisputable. It’s far less clear how significant a change this will represent for most viewers, and if the broadcasts can capture the younger audience it craves. Many who tuned into the Astros-Angels game told me they muted the Apple stream and listened to the Angels’ local radio feed. Ask Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who encased their first Apple I models in a wood shell: as technology evolves, there is value in wrapping it in something familiar.

Watney-w-Pena-parents.jpg?fit=620%2C9999
The Houston Astros’ Jeremy Peña, not pictured, hit his first MLB home run while reporter Heidi Watney, left, was interviewing his parents during the Apple TV+ broadcast of the Astros-Angels game last Friday at Angel Stadium. It was one of the memorable moments during Apple’s first night streaming MLB games. (Photo via Apple TV+ via Twitter.com)

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The Apple+ broadcast was a complete disaster. It was unprofessional, it spent too much time with prattle that didn't have any relevance to the game, they couldn't follow the plays in the field.

But most of all it jerked around those that had paid for a season package with Bally Sposrts just to be pushed to making a trial account for a streaming service they didn't want. 

Instead of reaching more audience share it alienated those that already had a service they liked for a broadcast that was not personalized for their home team. It was not entertaining and given more time that crew would still not fill the demand for a home town announce crew. 

MLB really doesn't know what they are doing with their product and it is evident by their inability to provide broadcsst service to their consumers in a simple convenient and consistent manner. 

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7 hours ago, AngelsWin.com said:

In a recent interview with the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast, veteran broadcaster Greg Gumbel said, “I’ve never felt in my entire life there is an announcer who can bring someone to the TV set to watch a game that that viewer wasn’t already going to watch. And I believe the only thing a broadcaster can do is chase people away.”

Bingo

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In the past couple of seasons when the games were broadcast on YouTube TV they grabbed my wife’s attention waaaaaayy more than Fox/Bally. She was never disinterested in baseball, but, short of specifically significant games, she was usually indifferent at best. But the YouTube games grabbed and held her attention. 

So I believe there is absolutely something to having baseball on different streaming sources, and presented in a way that differs slightly from the traditional regional presentation that’s been prevalent the last couple decades.

Anything that helps grow interest in the game, especially among younger fans, women, people of color communities is a good thing. Find a different way to listen or watch that night, or tolerate it being different for 5-10% of the total games you have access too. Get over it. 

BUT - that doesn’t excuse poor presentation, awkward chemistry, too many platforms, etc. These broadcasts can have a completely different tone, but they should still be of quality knowledgeable even if offering a totally different perspective. And get MLB needs to solve this blackout crap. First 15 games of the year for the Angels and in Texas, I’ve only really been able to watch the two Miami games.

People can’t start to enjoy something if they can’t even see it. This blackout business is unsustainable and antiquated.

 

 

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There should be little shock that these new broadcast “styles” would bother us old white guys. I didn’t really hear much of the broadcast but it almost felt like you were watching a game with people talking about the game rather than announcing the game. Announcers never really bother me because I watch for the game and not to have Kent French or anyone else tell me something I probably know from paying close attention to the game for 40+ years. I will say early on Gubi shared stuff on the pitching side that was new to me.  I now wish every few years they’d put a new color commentator in the booth because to me that’s more “enriching” than the pretty voice telling us what we already are seeing. 

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