The next hurdle: offering live games in fans’ home markets. With lucrative local cable deals driving so much team revenue, MLB has restricted web viewing to out-of-market games, targeting the displaced fan looking to see his favorite team from another city. But Bowman figures fans are just about at the point of expecting content on the web and television alike. The plan is to make in-market games available only to area cable subscribers. For example, only the Yankee fan subscribing to the YES Network would be able to see a game from his laptop on MLB.com while commuting or traveling. He hopes to unveil the service in some cities before the 2009 season ends.
The biggest potential beneficiaries of MLB’s growing reliance on Web dollars: Baseball’s small market clubs. Unlike local cable television, which creates revenue disparities as each club makes its own deal, all online revenue is shared equally.
This leaves MLB and BAM in charge of negotiating with every cable provider that airs MLB games. That’s going to slow down the process, and will probably result in MLB leaving money on the table in the short- and long-term.
But for small market teams, this policy is tremendous. Imagine if all local television revenue was pooled together; this is what MLB is doing with local digital rights, which will inevitably be more lucrative than TV rights at some point in the future. John Henry and the Red Sox realize this, which is why they’ve been fighting for control of these rights for years. If other large-market teams understood what was going on here, they’d probably be doing the same.
The question is, will this setup even be tenable once local digital rights become a huge source of revenue? This might end up being the next major source of class warfare in baseball, and it may come down to who the next commissioner is. Bud is a great friend to small market teams, so it’s no surprise that this is the direction MLBAM is taking at the moment. But if the next boss has more friends in Boston and New York, don’t be surprised if this policy reversed.
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