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Future of TV Briefing: A Q&A with Major League Baseball’s CRO about the league taking bigger swings in streaming

This week’s Future of TV Briefing features a conversation with MLB’s revenue chief about the league’s streaming deals with Apple TV+ and Peacock and its streaming plans for future seasons.

  • Batter up
  • Streaming’s rebundling era, Disney’s Hulu headache, Netflix’s measurement move and more

Batter up

America’s pastime caught on pretty early to the future of TV. Major League Baseball streamed its first game 20 years ago, and this year the league stepped up its streaming strategy even more through deals to stream games on Apple’s Apple TV+ and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. 

A day after the regular season ended on Oct. 5, MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden spoke with Digiday about how the league’s streaming strategy played out in its most recent season and what that portends for future seasons, including the window for MLB to sign streaming-only rights deals for postseason games.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Major League Baseball streamed its first game 20 years ago, and this was a pretty big year for MLB in streaming, with the Apple and Peacock deals. What was the biggest thing you all learned about streaming this year?

This year was really testing reach. One of the challenges we all have as content providers is that it’s become increasingly difficult to reach our fan base. There’s cord-cutters, cord-nevers, and then there’s our traditional linear fans that still are, by far, the biggest group of our fans. 

From an innovation standpoint, being able to offer different broadcasts digitally to different fans has been something that we continue to test. That’s really the core of our Peacock and Apple deals. But we’ve also done stuff outside that. On Apple, we streamed at the highest quality we’ve ever streamed before — 4K — which you could definitely tell when you looked at those streams. The other thing is we experimented with different types of overlays, from a stat perspective, that some of our fans were clamoring for, especially our younger fans. We’ve also done a lot of alternative type of broadcasts. We did YouTube TV; we did the all-female booth that went well. The internet offers an ability to have different streams; you can target different fan bases. That’s a prelude to what you’re going to see in the future.

How many new viewers of Major League Baseball can you attribute to games being streamed on Apple TV+ and Peacock this year?

New viewers, I think it’s going to be hard for us to come up with that number specifically now. But I can tell you that, from the demographic standpoint, we’re seeing it’s substantially younger, as you would imagine, and follows our demographics that we see on our app. Late 20s, early 30s, early 40s. 

One of the things I argue with people about a lot is they always say, “Hey, baseball is getting older.” They rely on Nielsen data to come up with that hypothesis. And what I keep telling people is, “Guys, you’re missing the point.” We started streaming in ’02. We had a product for our younger generation. The numbers that I see of people using our app, consuming our products, streaming our games are substantially younger. I think we’re finally getting credit for that now that there’s more measurements available for folks to see. 

MLB.tv reported the most minutes streamed this year since its launch. I’m guessing some of that may have to do with more people using streaming in general, it being a pretty eventful season and then maybe a little the length of games. But was there anything new or different that MLB did this year that played a factor in that watch time growth?

I think part of these deals — whether it’s Apple or Peacock — offering our games in more places to more fans. Apple has been a longtime partner of ours: We streamed the first game on their iPhone; we streamed the first game on their iPad. So we’ve had a deep relationship with Apple for a long time. This is an extension of that to reach into their ecosystem, which is vast and huge. The idea was to reach our younger fans, a different type of fan base and people that have found themselves outside of the traditional bundle. And then Peacock, the same sort of thing. NBC was a partner of baseball’s for a very, very long time. On the local level, they do a great job with the [regional sports networks] that they have and reaching out to fans that they have in their respective products has been helpful for us.

We’ll continue to test different partners. We’ll continue to go deeper with the partners that we have. But all in an effort to increase reach. We’ve always said from day one in ’02 when we streamed our first game, “If it has a plug or a battery, we want to be on it.” That remains true today.

MLB did the deal with Apple TV+, which is primarily an ad-free, subscription-based streaming service, but the games were available for free. Meanwhile, Peacock has a free tier, but the games on Peacock were only available to paid subscribers. That seems like it would have been a good A/B test. What differences did you see in terms of viewership between the two, both in terms of number of viewers but also in the makeup of those viewers given the different levels of availability?

It’s really nuanced. Generally when you think of who was streaming content these days, that demographic looks pretty much similar across many different platforms. When you look at Apple, they probably skew a little younger. They have a history of innovation across a wide variety of products and services, and I think that brings a more wide breadth of fans.

Peacock is an extension of NBC at Comcast and has certain fans that are used to consuming certain content. Those fans are a little more of an extension of what we see on TV. But again, all skew younger. It’s more similar than you’d think.

Major League Baseball has been producing the games streamed by Apple. Does the league plan to continue producing games for streaming, or do you plan to eventually have the streaming distributors be responsible for production?

Each deal is going to be different depending on the capabilities that each partner has. NBC is an easy one. They have RSNs. They produce baseball content. They have an infrastructure there that makes sense. Apple really doesn’t. They’re a products and services company. They haven’t gotten into the business of necessarily producing games. 

It’s always going to be an option for our partners to produce their own games if they feel they can do it effectively and provide something for our fans that we can all be proud of. But we also have a tremendous amount of capabilities here at MLB. With the MLB Network, we’ve been calling games for a long time. We deploy this technology and test out new technologies all the time. With Apple, we felt comfortable that we were going to continue to advance the innovation of these games together, letting each of us do what we’re expert at right now. 

Is there anything on the streaming side that you’ll look to do differently next year?

You’re going to see more innovation. You’re going to see more alternative broadcasts. You’re going to see more reaching out to specific audiences, whether it’s a youth audience that might want to see a game a certain way, whether it’s the traditional audience. That gives us a lot of different opportunities to deploy different technology to those fans that they’ll most appreciate.

A big shift in the streaming market over the past couple years and especially this year is major ad-free streamers adding ad-supported tiers. Netflix being the biggest example. As you’re assessing opportunities to strike deals with streaming services to air games, to what extent do you take into account whether a service has a paid, ad-supported tier; a free, ad-supported tier; or a paid, ad-free tier and which game packages would make sense?

Again, the goal for us is reach. You want to deploy your content in a way that’s going to optimize and maximize your reach, and the money will come. So everything is about what services are attracting different types of fans, how many subscribers, how those subscribers interact with that service. If we just got a big check from somebody that didn’t reach a lot of people, at this point that wouldn’t be important to us. We view every opportunity as it comes in front of us and with a goal, especially on the streaming side, of just reaching the most fans we can.

Postseason games are all nationally broadcast and only available to stream by people authenticating with a pay-TV subscription. Any plans to sell rights to a streaming-only distributor to air postseason games in the future?

It’s something we always talk about. I can tell you, in our current agreements today, those rights sit with the national partners that have bargained for those rights. In the case of ESPN this week, you’ll see it on ESPN+. That’s a service that reaches a tremendous amount of people with the combo of Disney and Hulu and ESPN+. We’ll continue to look at that as we go down the road as the deals pop up. But today it’s with them, and we’re comfortable that that’s providing us a significant amount of reach.

What’s the earliest that you would have the opportunity to make postseason games available for streaming-only deals?

That would be a few years from now. Now, internationally we do offer those opportunities. That’s something that continues to expand. Our international business has really picked up over the last few years. Obviously, it wasn’t helpful that we couldn’t play anymore overseas like we were playing before the pandemic. But we’ll be back next year. And so we are looking at different ways for streaming postseason to folks in international locations.

What we’ve heard

“We pay Nielsen what we already think is an eye-watering amount of money for some access to some data, and we haven’t fully unlocked all of those reporting metrics.”

— Streaming executive

Numbers to know

>$7 billion: How much money TikTok’s parent company ByteDance lost in 2021.

£1.4 billion ($1.6 billion): How much revenue Netflix generated from its U.K. subscribers in 2021.

$200 million: How much money in ad commitments Vizio secured in this year’s upfront marketplace.

What we’ve covered

TikTok continues to be a brand marketer darling despite its geopolitical dramas:

  • U.S. national security concerns about the platform seem to have hardly affected advertisers’ investment levels.
  • Some advertisers have opted against putting TikTok’s tracking pixel on their sites for security reasons.

Read more about TikTok here.

Fireball taps into streaming, Instagram to reach Gen Z of drinking age:

  • The spirits brand increased its video output on streamers including ESPN, Peacock and Hulu last month.
  • Fireball is also advertising on YouTube and Instagram.

Read more about Fireball’s streaming strategy here.

What we’re reading

Streaming’s rebundling era:
After TV networks unbundled themselves to go direct-to-consumer in streaming, companies like Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount are seeking out the security of the bundle for their streams, while Amazon sees an opportunity to become one of the companies doing the bundling, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Disney’s Hulu headache:
Disney and Comcast continue to haggle over Hulu’s ownership, and while Disney is likely to win out, Hulu has taken a hit as it loses programming, employees and its position as the preeminent streaming replacement for traditional TV, according to Insider.

Twitch’s trust issues:
The Amazon-owned live-streaming video platform used its TwitchCon event over the weekend to try to mend ties with creators upset by changes to Twitch’s monetization program, according to Bloomberg.

Paramount’s internal politics:
A push for more financially friendly programming appears to have been a primary factor in Paramount pushing out David Nevins as one of the company’s top programming executives, according to Puck.

Netflix’s measurement move:
Netflix will allow DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science to monitor the delivery and viewability of ads on its streaming service, though the company has yet to sign a deal with a third-party measurement provider like Nielsen or iSpot.tv, according to Ad Age.

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