Unfortunately For Baseball, Times Have Changed

There can be no doubt that Major League Baseball (MLB) is the most durable of professional sports. What other sports league could survive ownership by people so short-sighted that they would cancel their premier championship event (the 1994 World Series)?

It's that mindset that has cropped up yet again, with the near declaration of war by executives from MLB Advanced Media against the remarkable little company, Sling Media. It wouldn't be sporting to say that MLB Advanced Media is an oxymoron, but in comments to an entertainment trade publication, The Hollywood Reporter, Esq., the organization in charge of expanding baseball's online presence certainly showed a special longing for the good old days of, say, 1956. Back then, people flocked to ball parks, there were only three TV networks and fans had low expectations of technology because there wasn't anything they could do about it.

Unfortunately for baseball, times have changed. While the owners like raking in the dough from new-fangled things like cable, they at the same time strive to protect the outmoded concept of the docile consumer. Sling isn't helping, and good for them. They have a fabulously disruptive technology that puts viewers in control of what they want to watch and where. Their Sling Box sits on top of a TV set and, with a broadband connection, allows a TV viewer to watch his or her home TV on a laptop or cell phone wherever that viewer happens to be -- in another room in the same house or in a hotel room around the world. Major League Baseball and local broadcasters are not amused because it disrupts their tidy scheme of certain cities being able to watch only certain, authorized games. Nor are they appreciative, as they should be.

Call it another "assault on reason," to borrow a current phrase from a former vice president. One would think that any device that would allow a viewer of a local TV station or a fan of a local sports team to watch that station more or follow that team more closely would be welcomed by broadcasters and team owners. One would be wrong, because we are dealing with broadcasters and team owners.

"Of course, what they are doing is not legal," Michael Mellis, the senior vice president and general counsel of the baseball's "advanced media" division said, threatening the big stick (presumably wooden, not aluminum) of legal action.

It's not a matter of Major League Baseball objecting to fans of the Seattle Mariners watching the game in Washington, D.C. MLB simply wants to make sure that the fans watch the game in the authorized manner, on baseball's official online feed, mlb.tv, for which fans can pay up to $100 with all the nifty features. (There are also premium cable and satellite services that fans can buy for out-of-market games.) The fact that a fan has already paid once to watch the game, either of a local team or an out-of-market team by subscribing to cable or satellite, or even to a premium cable MLB service is of no relevance to the Lords of Baseball.

National pastime or not, baseball wants its piece of the action, whether it is for additional viewing of games, or for the use of players' names in fantasy leagues. It wants to dip its beak into anything that smacks of Major League Baseball. Viewing must be "monetized" in the authorized way. The names of players and teams must be "monetized" in the authorized way. Money must be paid.

In that sense, baseball, and for that matter, other big league sports, are in the same league as Viacom, which has sued YouTube for $1 billion over clips posted online of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Everything has to be authorized and "monetized," even if it means that fans are deprived of the ability to watch games, or get more involved with a sport, or even share a skit online.

It's probably only a matter of time before Fox sues MSNBC, for those times when Keith Olbermann made American Idol the top story of his countdown. After all, MSNBC is making money off of the mentions of Idol in the same way that YouTube benefits from having a Stewart clip. Fox could sue every newspaper in the country (not that it would get much) for making money off of the mention of Idol in their stories.

Baseball's attacks on technology may succeed and it, like other content companies, could establish total control over their domains. Whether that success will go in the "w" column is another matter entirely. More than likely, it will go down as a blown save in a big loss.