It’s rookie season for Major League Baseball's decision to charge for online radio broadcasts of games. But will the move prove a hit or a big whiff with baseball fans?
Radio broadcasts over the Internet have been increasingly popular with sports fans in recent years. The streaming audio feeds are sometimes the only way to follow a team for displaced fans and those who live or work in areas with bad radio reception.
Until this year, for example, a Cincinnati Reds fan living in Las Vegas could simply log onto the Web site of the Cincinnati radio station that broadcasts the games. Not all the stations offered every game, and the quality wasn’t always ideal, but it didn’t cost listeners a dime.
This year, though, Major League Baseball has taken the audio on its own site and charged fans $9.95 a season to hear all the games. Because MLB owns the rights to the broadcasts, individual radio stations can no longer carry game audio on their own sites.
MLB execs say the move to charge money is a logical consequence of the recent overhaul of its Internet operations. After all, they say, radio feeds don’t come cheap.
"Streaming audio isn’t free," said Bob Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which operates MLB.com. "It’s not unreasonable to ask those who enjoy the service to pay for the service. Our goal is trying to recover our costs."
Bowman says the broadcasts are not the same as what the local radio stations were providing on their Web sites for nothing. Both home and away games – over 4,500 of them – played by all 30 teams will be available through MLB, he said. So will synchronized player statistics, diagrams and graphics of what’s happening on the field, foreign language feeds and archives of old games.
And the $9.95 per-season charge comes with a $10-off coupon for the MLB online store.
"It’s probably darn near the best value in sports," Bowman said.
But paying for something that used to be free has quite a few fans grumbling.
"While it's a minuscule amount, the principle of the matter stinks," said Holly Sommer, a Houston Astros fan. "Ads are still being run during the games, because it's a re-routed radio broadcast. So it's not like there is no revenue source associated with the audiocasting."
Some worry MLB will only succeed in alienating potential fans at a time when so many sports and activities threaten to erode the National Pastime’s status.
"For as long as I can remember, MLB has taken its fan base for granted and just assumes that, as the National Pastime, that it will gather and hold fans, which just couldn't be further from the truth," said Zachary Gronich, another Astros fan.
Many of those who paid the $9.95 fee aren’t exactly ecstatic either.
"I was greatly disappointed to hear that MLB.com was going to start charging for the feeds, but decided that $10 wasn't that bad - especially if you get a $10 coupon for merchandise in the MLB store," said Ref Fransen, a New York Mets fan in South Bend, Ind.
Fransen said he had hoped MLB could improve the product. But he thinks the service has actually gotten worse.
"They've changed the interface to be a pop-up window within the browser, which has certain limitations," Fransen said. "For archived audio, you cannot skip to certain sections like you previously could, due to the absence of a scroll bar. There are annoyances with the logging-in process."
"I have e-mailed MLB.com several times complaining, but only received a form-letter type response," Fransen said. And he still hasn't received the promised $10 coupon.
Other users have complained of unreliable feeds. Billing snafus are also not uncommon.
Discontent has spread to fans overseas. Stephan Boll, from Mulhouse, France, religiously follows his beloved Astros through the Internet.
"I just don’t understand why they had to offer such a bland and flawed product," said the 29-year-old part-time umpire. "Why not make sure everything works okay, and then launch the site?"
MLB’s Bowman conceded he has heard from upset fans.
"I feel badly about that," Bowman said. "Most of us here are fans as well and empathize. We recognize that not every change will make them happy."
Some fans found work-arounds. For weeks after Opening Day, Web-savvy snoopers could still figure out the Web address scheme used by MLB and hook up to a broadcast without paying the fee. Others who refused to shell out the 10 bucks even posted the old addresses, or URLs, on their personal sites.
MLB has since encrypted the feed, scrambling the code so it can't be easily hacked. Tech experts say it's still possible to skirt the site and get free audio feeds, but admitted it is neither easy nor likely to happen.
"You have to be Internet-savvy. You have to have the time to learn how to do this," said Steve Jones, founder of the Association of Internet Researchers. "That’s not to say it’s impossible. I would counsel the MLB folks to keep on their toes, which I’m sure they are."
The decision to carry the games on MLB.com for a fee hasn’t thrilled some radio stations, either.
WBAL, which had carried Baltimore Orioles games over the Web for the last five years, initially defied MLB this season by refusing to stop the station's online broadcast. "But our lawyers told us MLB would prevail, so we’re getting ready to stop the Web audio," said Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL Station Manager.
"We’ve been doing [the Web audio] for five years at no charge for listeners," Beauchamp said. "Baseball is arrogant and wrong on this matter, especially because it’s a sport that’s looking to cultivate the next generation of fans."
Not all fans oppose paying for the games.
"In all honesty, I don’t mind paying $10 for it," said Nick Beaudrot, a computer sciences student at Brown University. "Rather than viewing the $10 as money I have to pay because the MLB has a monopoly on baseball, I consider it covering the cost of maintaining the system required to deliver the broadcast to my desktop."
Besides, with a little research, it appears Web-savvy fans can still find a number of local radio stations offering baseball broadcasts from their sites. "I think I've listened to over 30 games so far this season on the Internet and I've never paid for one of them," Gronich said.
Neither the National Football League nor the National Hockey League charge for Web radio broadcasts. The National Basketball Association was the first major sports league to charge fans to listen to games online.
Keith Ritter, president of NHL Interactive Cyber Enterprises, doesn’t believe basic access to radio feeds of games should cost money. "We’re not in the business of putting barriers between our fans and the game," he said.
Houston’s Sommer agreed: "It's another symbolic wall being thrown up between fans and the game. Things which separate fans from their sport are bad, in my opinion, and that includes charging for what was once free."