Why MLB should relax and not try to emulate the NFL

For several years now, Major League Baseball has been something of a whipping boy: the target of sports entertainment options lining up to grab market share from The Grand Old Game.

“You look at the explosion of the UFC and what it did in the last 10 years, I think we are going to see it grow a lot more,” said UFC analyst Kenny Florian back in 2012. “It’s going to become a more international sport. It’s going to explode all over the world. In this country don’t be surprised if it becomes more popular than baseball!”

For all the talk of MLB’s issues in recent seasons, you might be tempted to believe that the national pastime has been overtaken by UFC, or badminton or even basketweaving in popularity. However it’s actually still a strong No2, a position baseball has occupied since being knocked off its North American popularity perch by the NFL decades ago.

Of course, all sports are vulnerable to dramatic shifts in public consumption over time, and if you go back to the start of the 20th century, it was horse racing and boxing that were the most popular sports in the US. Baseball was tops during its golden age of the 1950s and into the 80s, and now it plays second fiddle to the NFL according to a January, Harris poll that puts the NFL 16 percentage points ahead of baseball in fan popularity.

The NFL, which has suffered through drama and trauma, shows no signs of yielding any of its territory despite a series of of unsavory and scandalous activities. As the season draws near, legions of football fans are conducting fantasy drafts, filling bad restaurants where all things NFL play on the plasmas. When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings kicked off the 2015 pre-season at the Hall-of-Fame Game in August, some 9.7 million fans tuned in to watch, up from 8.5 million the prior season. That’s one of the most meaningless sporting events of the year, more than doubling the average viewership of the 2014 National League Championship Series between the St Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants.

Baseball’s issues – too slow, too low-octane, too white, an aging fan base, an inability to hold the national audience – have been widely discussed. Now that the calendar has flipped to September, the clutter in the sports market intensifies: the NFL, college football, the US Open, the latter stages of the MLS season and even the English Premier League are making it even more difficult for baseball to push through.

However, through all the competition and noise of its detractors lies the fact that not only has the game begun to successfully tackle its issues, but that baseball has, rather incredibly, become the envy of its competition by transforming itself into an industry leader inside one of the most important sectors of the web: streaming digital media.

Each owner has a golden share in Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which began in 2000 with a goal of putting every single game online. Today, MLBAM’s ability to stream up to 15 games a day for six months of the year during a time when nobody else was, has transformed a little experiment into a business that is worth several billion dollars according to reports.

“Baseball is cutting edge from the digital standpoint, you’ve got other leagues now and other properties gravitating to them,” Lee Berke, president & CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media told the Guardian.

The NHL are the latest sporting enterprise to enlist their services, which will see them stream games via apps created by MLBAM. The deal, announced in early August, includes MLBAM taking over all league websites and distribution of the NHL Network, which will move to Secaucus, New Jersey, home to MLB’s own successful network, where they’ll be working to improve the production. The partnership, in which the NHL will get a 7-10% stake, could be part of an eventual spin off the tech giant.

That deal followed their agreement with the PGA to provide live streaming of early-round tournaments, previously a major hole in golf coverage. And their catalog of business, which includes Turner Sports and the WWE is not limited to sports: when you use your phone to watch HBO via their Now app, that’s also MLBAM at work.

All of this comes at a time where numbers of cord-cutting cable subscribers are rising and putting stress on the traditional programming distribution model. Should that trend continue, MLBAM, with its relationship with other sports leagues and entertainment properties, could conceivably find themselves in a position to create a major online content network.

That would be down the road: on the diamond, baseball is also on the up. The controversial pace of game rules installed at the start of the 2015 have been a successful, with game times being trimmed by an average of eight minutes. Yes, strikeouts continue to rise, but so have slugging percentages. Attendance is up by over 600,000 (or 1%) year-on-year so far, as crowds enjoy an enormous crop of marketable young talent. Even if the game can’t command national ratings as it has in the past, the sport is rock-solid in its key markets (and total attendance was around 75 million last season): the emergence of the Cubs in Chicago and the Blue Jays in Toronto has brought about a rise in local popularity, while demand for expansion in baseball-less cities such as Montreal continues to rise.

As far as attracting new, younger customers, MLB must do a better job. Regardless, Berke is bullish on their prospects. “The MLB At Bat app is very strong app with an easy interface. They’re getting a new generation of baseball fans because they watch the games on their phones.”

Even as we enter September when the competition ratchets up, there are more eyes on baseball than just a few years ago. That’s because the additional wild card spot has helped to expand the number of markets in which MLB remains relevant as the NFL seasons begins. At the moment, teams in Dallas, Minneapolis-St Paul, Cleveland and Los Angeles still have a shot at that final American League playoff place, and thus, have a reason to turn up at the ballpark.

Yes, the NFL may be king on television, but baseball is built to thrive inside a media landscape that grows more uncertain by the day.

Said Berke: “Every sport has to reinvent itself, and Major League Baseball is going to reinvent itself in large part due to their success in digital.”