Monday, March 07, 2005

7 March 2005: Dot t.v.

Spring Training is upon us once again.

The usual questions face the Braves fans as the Grapefruit League begins to warm up. Will the Braves be able to beat the odds yet again and win a fourteenth consecutive division title? Will the off-season trades, which as usual have filled the Braves key gaps with players rated as 'over the hill' and 'will never make it back from that injury', shine through as All-Star MVP candidates? Will Julio Franco never get any older? (Note to the uninitiated: he's the oldest player in baseball by quite some distance, and he still steals bases. Officially he's 47 this year, unofficially he's at least 52.) And, this year, will John Smoltz perform the never-before-accomplished feat of being a 20-game winning starter, a 150-save closer, then go back to being a successful starter again?

The answers to these questions, and many others, will be found on the internet as the season unfolds. And here's where it gets interesting: I'll be able to watch it all as it happens, live. Over the internet.

MLB launched their service as an experiment jointly with RealNetworks in 2002, and have now extended it to include Windows Media formats too. Essentially taking the idea of the radio broadcasts, they figured: since almost all games are televised over local stations, why not just put those feeds up on the internet too, and charge a subscription fee for the service? At 350kpbs, the feed is more than just watchable -- it's often better than our fuzzy reception of Channel 5's excellent coverage (btw - great site from the Channel 5 guys, well done). For a little over £40, I've got all the television and radio feeds for all the season's baseball games for the next six or seven months. And it's absolutely brilliant.

Which begs the question, why can't I do the same with Saints or Argyle games? Why isn't there a central, official website where I can subscribe to Premiership or Championship games? The answer is organisation, of course: Premiership and other football clubs have such complex bargaining agreements with the broadcasting companies that such thoughts are almost unthinkable - getting all the internet media rights centralised was hard enough for a franchise operation like Major League Baseball, what are the chances of a bunch of loosely-affiliated independently-owned clubs who are members, not franchises, of the F.A. Premier League or the Football League, agreeing to give up their rights to that organisation, and then trusting they can take a cut of the profits later?

Alternatively, they could do it themselves. A fascinating Observer article from last October speculated that the reason for Malcolm Glazer's continuing interest in bidding for Manchester United is so that he can wrestle control of the broadcast rights next time the Premier League's contract with Sky is up for renewal, and instead set up a subscription-model for watching Man U on broadband, particularly for the lucrative south Asia market, who are crazy about both broadband and Man U. And this, if true, suddenly makes Glazer's bid look a lot less crazy and a lot more visionary than anyone has given him credit for.

Because, despite current skepticism concerning the internet as a replacement for television, it's only going to get better. MLB's coverage has spread to 97% of all major league games being shown live, and higher bandwidth services are to be experimented with either this season or next, improving the already-pretty-darn-good picture quality to something approaching DVD level. By the time the Premier League contract discussions come around in 2006/7, there could be a whole body of evidence to show where the future lies. And unlike, it will be organised club-by-club, meaning I'd only have to subscribe to Saints or Argyle to get all their games live.

Is there money in this internet lark? If you've got broadband, watch a channel from the Interactive Baseball Network for five minutes, imagine a slightly-improved picture quality, a live Premiership game and a Man U-crazy south Asian audience.

Welcome to the money-making world of the internet.

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