MLB to RSNs: It’s time to think direct-to-consumer

Wrigley Field in Chicago
Direct-to-customer streaming of MLB looks at best like a 2022 prospect. (Image: Rdikeman/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Major League Baseball is considering a rule change that cord cutters can cheer. After years of relying on traditional distribution of local games via cable and satellite (plus, to a limited extent, over-the-top streaming), MLB is now urging its regional sports networks to explore direct-to-customer possibilities for local fans.

“What we’re trying to do now is work with those RSNs to figure out what type of structure would make sense for an over-the-top product that may not require authentication,” said MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer Chris Marinak in a “Producing OTT Sports Content” keynote interview I led at the Stream TV Sports Summit.

As in, instead of asking online viewers to authenticate themselves with login credentials for a TV service already carrying a regional sports network’s programming, the RSN would sell service direct to those fans.

Marinak earlier hinted at this possibility in an answer at MLB’s March 17 media preview event: “We are speaking with all the distributors about ways to make a direct sports offering available to consumers in that market.”

That followed years of cord cutting chipping away at cable and satellite subscriber bases. And while linear streaming services welcomed baseball RSNs to an unprecedented degree in 2019, the fall of 2020 saw Hulu and YouTube TV dump dozens of them—leaving 22 baseball RSNs available online this year only on one OTT offering, the $85 tier at AT&T TV.

In the summit interview, Marinak didn’t describe what a DTC offering might look like, saying “There’s no blueprint for that right now.”

(I reminded him that MLB dropped regional blackouts for Washington Nationals games during the team’s first year in D.C. because the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network had almost zero distribution then. The Toronto Blue Jays’ SportsNet Now SVOD service could provide another template.)

Marinak added that rights negotiations will be particularly tricky due to all the parties involved, as well as MLB’s interest in retaining overall control over where live game footage plays.

So direct-to-customer streaming looks at best like a 2022 prospect.

In many other ways, however, his talk showed how much MLB has pivoted from old notions of where online video would fit.

Take Film Room, the extensively-searchable library of clips that MLB debuted last year—with sharing tools included, a distinct contrast to earlier MLB video efforts.

“We weren’t that interested in having fans and consumers taking our content and posting it in different places,” Marinak said. “We’ve basically done a 180.”

By letting fans mash up their own highlight reels from clips they pick out with such criteria as player, location, inning and type of play, Film Room also lets MLB benefit from its fans’ interest and creativity.

“We have a limited editorial group,” he said. “We can only create so many highlight reels.”

And while Film Room is still evolving—answering a question about the lack of a “walkoff” tag, Marinak said the machine-learning algorithms behind its search have yet to recognize a game-winning hit—it’s also yielding a little marketing upside to MLB.

“It gives you like a real-time lens into what players are popular,” he said of video searches. “If you look at something like jersey sales, there’s a little bit of lag.”